25 January 2017 - 6:03 pm

A plethora of love

Why must there always be smoochies?
(Picture: not mine)

Western society and its fictional media seem obsessed with sexual relationships. Not necessarily sex itself (because being too sexual is bad); rather, romance and sexual attraction, and the promise of sex.

I have no problem with these ideas on their own. I love a good romantic subplot, or even main plot when the mood strikes. I like a bit of raunchy goodness. I adore seeing couples come together. (I’m currently in the middle of writing a very romance/sex-heavy part of a story, and loving it!)

I start to have an issue when it becomes ubiquitous. Too often, romances are shoe-horned into stories, whether books or TV shows or movies. Fan-fiction takes non-romantic relationships and adds sexual heat. I start to object not because I dislike romances, but because of all the things that these couplings are replacing, and for the messages it sends.

One of the things that worries me most about this trend is that it erases other types of love and relationship. Relationships are so much more than just sex and attraction, and they can be deep and valuable without a hint of sexual chemistry. Too often, I see that if a man and woman work closely together, or are in close proximity for long periods, they must, at some point, hook up. Or if two men are very close, loyal to each other, often comrades of some sort, they must also be fucking.

It’s unrealistic, and honestly, childish (in its desperate clamouring for simplicity, not in that children do this). It is entirely possible to be devoted friends with someone of your preferred will-boink gender and type, and have it never go anywhere near sex. You can be utterly loyal to them, to a fault, have a deep affection, and for it to be completely non-sexual (or asexual; I’m using ‘non-sexual’ to avoid confusion with the asexual orientation).

But so many of the stories we read and see deny that this is a possibility. If two people get on really well, at least one of them will want to get naked and sweaty with the other. This is particularly pervasive in fan-fiction, which is notorious for taking non-sexual relationships and turning them sexual (the Wincest and Twincest* fandoms are so notable they have their own names, and turn brothers into lovers). Why can’t brothers just love each other? Support each other and have each other’s backs? Why is that not beautiful and satisfying in its own right?

Talking about fan-fiction is tricky, because it’s a minefield of people striving to tell the stories they want to tell. I’m not trying to bash fan-ficcers; they are, unfortunately, the extreme example that illustrates the point. I get that two hot guys fucking is sometimes the point, and that’s fine. I also understand that, for minorities, often these pairings are about representation and putting themselves (or people like themselves) into media in a way that mainstream media is currently failing to do. (Glorifying incest is a shade too far in my book, but that’s a personal opinion.)

I mention it because it’s all part of this worrying trend that turns every relationship into a boink-fest. Like there’s nothing else.

It’s got to the point where the exceptions jump out at me, and I’m desperately grateful for them. Like the end of Pacific Rim, when the two lead characters, despite some chemistry in the movie and being in each other’s heads, embrace platonically at the end instead of the snog I was expecting Hollywood to produce. It was a natural progression of their relationship, rather than the usual rush-to-squishiness that happens. That moment wasn’t about romance; it was about appreciating each other, with affection, and was nice to see.

Sometimes, the best way we can support and comfort one another is with a hug.

Similarly, Zoe and Mal in Firefly/Serenity are a great example. They’re inseparable, utterly and fiercely loyal to each other, they live together, they’re both physically-capable characters, and go through high-stakes combat situations (and we all know that adrenaline leads inevitably to boinking, right? Like we can’t help ourselves).

And yet, there’s absolutely no chemistry between them (it’s even explicitly addressed in the TV show). In any other show, they’d be all over each other (see, for example, Farscape for a different choice with similar archetypes). In Firefly, though, they’re allowed to be attached to each other and romantically (and sexually) independent. Their orientations even mesh, so it’s not that they couldn’t be attracted to each other that way; they simply aren’t. I love this!

These two examples also allow something that is erased by much Western fiction: men and women can be friends and not want to fuck at any point in the relationship. No ‘friendzoning’ required (I hate that whole idea because of everything it carries with it).

And this is where I mention the messages that this trend sends. That every close relationship must involve sex at some point, like it’s expected. This is where the ‘friendzoning’ trend/trope annoys me, because our media encourages men, in particular, to expect sex as part of being friends with a girl.

It’s worth mentioning that I’ve dated guys that I’ve been friends with for some time. I’ve had that type of relationship evolution myself, so I’m the last person to deny that it can happen. I’ve also had a lot of close male friends in my life that have involved no chemistry on either side (despite compatible sexual preferences), and have just been great mateships. I value those relationships greatly. So the denial that the latter can happen annoys me intensely. Why would you deny yourself the wonderful friends you could have?

Then there’s the trend that people in intense situations must get together, because that’s a healthy way to start a relationship. The movie Speed addressed this explicitly, and it’s no surprise that the relationship at the end of the first movie has fallen apart by the sequel (it’s also convenient for their casting/plot choices, of course). Too many times, I’ve looked at a couple snogging at the end of a story with its ‘and they boinked happily ever after and had little tiny protagonists of their own’ tone, and wound up thinking ‘but they have nothing in common and returning to their real lives is going to be a hell of a shock’. Enjoy the sweaty sex while it lasts, kids, because that’s only a happily-for-now ending, not a happily-ever-after.

More worrying is the trope that we still see all over the place that uses a romantic hookup as the hero’s reward at the end of his struggles. Because women are still prizes to be fought over and won, and we, apparently, can’t help but get all weak-kneed in the presence of a successful protagonist. These are usually the most ill-matched pairings, because the girl must be hot and male heroes have had a trend in recent years of being more ordinary-looking, delving into nerdy (Transformers, I’m looking at you).

It’s not to say that the nerd can’t get the hot girl, because sure, we all love to see someone punching above their weight. But it’s the notion that all you need to do is succeed at whatever is in front of you to ‘get’ her that rankles. In Transformers, it’s particularly obvious, because they spend no time at all developing why the girl would want to be with this boy on a relationship level (and there’s not a whisper of chemistry between them). He’s the ‘hero’ of the story, so therefore, getting the girl is a foregone conclusion and the story does nothing to provide any other reason for the hook-up.

Too often, the romance aspect is pushed in at the last minute, like they’re ticking a box.

Turning a relationship to sex can also cheapen whatever it had been growing into in the story. It’s so frustrating to see burgeoning friendships turn into ‘nah, they’re just going to fuck’, and what might have been an interesting aspect to the story be cut off. Because a lot of how we deal with sex, particularly in the media, is cheap and distancing, and lacks complexity, by replacing emotional or affectionate intimacy with physical intimacy.

Turning a relationship romantic can also cut off other avenues of expression, exploration and discussion. ‘Because love’ becomes the reason for everything, and I’m so terribly bored with that. We do things for so many reasons, and being in love with someone doesn’t have to be at the top of the list.

One example that comes to mind is the current Stucky (Steve Rogers/Bucky Barnes) fan pairing. There is some desire to make this pairing canon in the MCU, and fans who will claim that it’s subtext in the movies. At least part of this is because the MCU is desperately lacking in gay representation and having a notable character like Captain America be gay (or bi, really) would be huge. I get that, and I support the sentiment that there should be more gay representation (in the MCU and media in general). However.

I think that giving Steve and Bucky’s relationship a sexual or romantic angle would cheapen and over-simplify it. Steve’s relationship with and feelings towards Bucky are complicated, and not entirely about Bucky. His dogged support and pursuit of Bucky through Civil War shows us a lot about him and about the trauma that he is struggling to deal with: losing everyone he knew to the passage of time while he was frozen; survivor’s guilt, particularly with what happened to Bucky; a desperate belief in the possibility of redemption; and the loyalty between comrades and friends.

Bring romance into it, and all of those things fade into the background. We can sit back and stop questioning: Steve’s motivations are explained by ‘because love’, because love is such a powerful force that you don’t need any other explanation to shore it up. For someone to go to those lengths for a friend, though, that lets us know that there’s a lot more going on under the hood than is immediately obvious. We question, we watch more closely, because if not love, then why? We start to notice how much Steve is looking in the mirror when he looks at Bucky and seeing all the things that he could have been, if things had been different. If he hadn’t been lucky. If he had fallen off that train and into the enemy’s hands. The struggle with the friend who had protected him for so long suddenly needing his protection. His desperate need to believe in there being good underneath the mask of the Winter Soldier. Tucking all of this away under romance-tinted lenses is a disservice to otherwise complex and interesting characters.

As a creator and consumer of fiction, I’m interested in the human condition. I want to see it in all its dirty, complicated messiness. I want to see all the diverse aspects people and how we interact with and are influenced by the world around us.

Not every relationship can and should be about romance or sex or hearts. There are so many different ways to love others: some involve kisses, others hugs, and others supportive words.

For those who cry about representation, who want this character to be gay, or that character to be bi: what about asexual characters? Or aromantics? What about stories that are not about romance? Why must it be everywhere?

Why can’t we embrace the bromance or the sisterhood without sex getting in the way, or celebrate close familial love, or enjoy the notion of heterosexual life partners**? Why isn’t it okay for soulmates to be just friends? Why can’t we explore all the different flavours of love available to us?

Because there’s so much more out there worth exploring. Demand more from your fiction! Like Frozen, which revolved around the connection between two sisters (and lampooned romantic relationships and our childish obsession with them). Or Brave, which was about connecting with parents, and balancing compassion and understanding with duty.

Demand more, write more. Enjoy the breadth and depth of human emotion, and don’t let media pressure cheapen it with a thin veneer of sex. We’re so much better than that.


* For those unfamiliar: Wincest is the Winchester brothers from Supernatural hooking up; Twincest is the Weasley twins from Harry Potter doing the same.

** Jay and Silent Bob reference; another flavour of bromance without a hint of actual romance.

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  1. Francisco says:

    It’s about time someone made this point. There’s nothing wrong with friendship. Most of my friends are women.

    I never watched Pacific Rim (the trailers made it look like a typical monster movie) but I am beginning to understand why some people I know in a forum said that it was wonderful.

    Hell, when I was considering writing an erotic romance, the most important relationship in that story was not the protagonist and her boyfriend but the friendship she has with another woman (there was more room for growth as the two were coming from diametrically opposite perspectives). In my current work, the protagonist is already married to the love of her life at the start. What I’m trying to say is that it’s not hard to come up with new dynamics.

    January 25th, 2017 at 8:14 pm

  2. Mel says:

    So true Francisco! So many different kinds of relationships to choose from, a variety of flavours.

    Pacific Rim is giant robots beating on giant monsters, but done really well and with great character work. It’s a lot of fun, if that’s the sort of movie you like.

    January 28th, 2017 at 6:50 pm

  3. Nicole says:

    You are so freaking good at this. You’re saying the things I’ve always wanted to say, the very reason I began writing in the first place. I wanted to speak up for the relationships that weren’t based on sex.

    This has to be my favourite post by you. 🙂 thanks lady!

    February 1st, 2017 at 5:17 am

  4. Mel says:

    Thanks, Nicole! It’s one of the reasons I love writing, too: exploring all these different ways that people get involved with one another. Let’s be the creators we want to see in the world. 😀

    February 1st, 2017 at 10:28 am