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Monday, 19 September 2016

Representation in Fiction - Why it Matters

In the modern West, we are privileged to live in a world that is saturated with stories. Cheap print media, a massive film industry and ubiquitous TV sets overstuffed with channels have been joined by the omnipresent communications of the internet and the rising art of interactive video-game story-telling. As a child of the aptly-named information age it would be difficult for me to recall all of the fictional narratives I have absorbed in the past month, impossible for me to list all the tales that I have been at least partially exposed to in the past year.
In order for us to truly experience a story, it is usually necessary for each event involved to be described from the perspective of one of the characters present. These fictional individuals are normally intended to be direct analogues for the humans of our real world. Given the vast army of characters we have met and the innumerable adventures they have had, one might assume that we have vicariously lived as every type of person there is and seen visions of our world from almost every angle that can be lived in.
Sadly, this is simply not as true as should be. It is not so very far back in our history that men were considered naturally superior to women in almost every respect - and held almost every position of direct power that could easily provide the agency for a stirring story. Many Westerners also considered white people to be superior to other ethnicities and whites held great power in many regions where they numbered only a tiny minority. Heterosexuality was the only publicly acceptable orientation and commanded complete domination of the social order. Under these circumstances it became a nearly universal convention for the protagonist of a Western story to be a straight white male.
More importantly, this social order was considered to be ideal by those who held great power within it. Presenting a different type of person as equally powerful and able – and asking the audience to applaud their exploits – was a direct challenge to that status quo. Since the powerful were aware of the ability of even fictional works to sway the minds of those who heeded them, a great degree of social pressure was exerted to ensure that authors delivered the 'right' message and did not 'corrupt public morals'. Positive characters of other types still existed, but in absurdly small numbers compared to their actual demographics.

In the real world, we have seen great strides toward correcting these problems. Hard-fought campaigns have brought many previously marginalised groups of people substantially closer to equality. Most people now consider sexism, racism and homophobia to be very bad things, even if this also causes them to angrily reject any suggestion they might be unintentionally guilty of these charges.
Unfortunately it is the nature of fiction to retell tales that have already been told. New heroes are inspired by old ones, even when the story itself is not a conscious reworking of a proven classic. The combined population of all our other worlds still holds a severely disproportionate number of straight white men compared to our real one, meaning that everyone else is correspondingly under-represented. The capitalist aspect of the story-telling world (which ultimately pays for all of the distribution methods I mentioned above) is happy to encourage this trend because it means adhering to a proven business model.

The empowerment of differing people and a decline in willingness to censure and censor subversive material has naturally lead to to an increasing number of diverse protagonists. However, some campaigners have begun to actively seek the acceleration of this trend. They push for a conscious effort to be made to include more diverse characters by authors of all backgrounds, deliberately changing the universe of fictional art into a more complete and accurate reflection of the human race.
Although this seems like a noble goal, many have been left puzzled and alienated by the language of these campaigners. Applying real-world political arguments to the contents of fiction seems to them like a fundamental failure to separate fantasy from reality, a self-righteous attempt to win a completely meaningless victory in a world filled with important causes. If an author can create or destroy entire fictional universes without any real-world consequences, how can calling the minority status of a fictional character 'important' be anything other than delusional?

Having both heard the accounts of others and experienced the effects of representation myself, I am very much of the opinion that representation in fiction does matter. I intend to illustrate this with my own story, chosen simply because it is a tale that no-one else can tell.

In many respects I am not a person who has ever been under-represented in the media I have consumed. I am, in fact, a straight white male. I have seen so many characters that looked just like me (except for the muscle tone) that I actually find it boring these days – the traits they display are so much the presumed default that characters exhibiting them feel like they don't have any traits at all.
Of course, every person has many different aspects to their identity. As regular readers will know, my identity includes both being a Christian and being a member of the BDSM community. Although the former is infinitely more important to me, both of these things have an effect upon my sense of self.
Christians are perhaps under-represented in stories these days. Negative Christian characters are often cartoonish - and positive ones are frequently undercut by the implication that they are objectively deluded but benefit from their personal passion. Even so, Christian representation is quite frequent and often displays some understanding of how being a Christian actually works.
BDSM representation, on the other hand, is very infrequent indeed. Positive kinky characters are almost unknown next to those for whom it serves as an indicator for villainy. As I grew up I only occasionally saw this part of myself anywhere in fiction and never saw anything that I could actually identify with on an advanced level. Indeed, I rarely even saw much that exhibited an acceptable standard of consent.

I remember Jabba the Hutt taking clear pleasure in controlling women on leashes, despite the biological irrationality of his attraction. I remember the Baroness from GI Joe and I definitely remember the time she got tied to the front of Serpentor's tank. I remember Onatopp from Goldeneye, vampire Willow from Buffy and Lucy Liu's omni-sadistic call girl from Payback. Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman was... revelatory, but even she was a mentally unstable villain. I remember watching The Matrix Revolutions whilst curled up with an equally kinky fiend, who sighed and asked why it was always the bad guys who got the fetish clubs.
The first genuinely positive BDSM character I can recall seeing was the protagonist of Secretary, which I plucked up the courage to go and buy a ticket for at my local cinema. It was remarkable for me to see these desires from the perspective of the character who was actually experiencing them, let alone for her to end up in a happy marriage that satisfied them. On the other hand, the film strongly implied that her sexuality was a direct result of her mental illness and self harm. This bothered me because I knew that it was untrue in my case. I also remember a previously chatty Facebook acquaintance who never contacted me again after I said that I liked the film and did not personally consider the spanking and bondage to be 'way controversial lol'.

Aside from the Secretary-related gripes, this poor representation never actually bothered me at the time. As a straight male I took it for granted that most female characters would be presented in manner that happened to titillate me. I lapped up these sexualised characters in the same casual way that I consumed all the rest, simply taking an extra interest because they met my personal taste. Since the stereotypical dominatrix fantasy involves the woman acting mean and cruel, making them villains kinda worked for me. My friend's question stayed in my mind, but the only result was that I came up with a concept for a good-aligned club owning RPG character as a thought exercise. (He was a Warhammer Fantasy character who hunted Slaanesh cultists amongst his patrons, whilst fending off Sigmarite witch-hunters who would prefer to just burn the lot of them). It probably says something that I considered it an exercise in creativity to come up with a kinky character who got to be seen in a positive light, but I didn't really understand this at the time.
I did go through a year or so of acute mental distress, when I started worrying that my kinky desires meant that there was something wrong with me and that I would eventually become an abusive partner. I attempted to repress the kinky elements of the sexual thoughts that arose in me every seven minutes or so, fighting an invisible and unwinnable battle that followed me everywhere I went. However, I think this had more to do with getting lost inside my own head than with internalising the sexual politics of Goldeneye. Perhaps I would have come through this wilderness into a proper understanding more swiftly if I had been presented with even one piece of positive mainstream representation, but ultimately I feel it was a journey that I had to take.

The event that began to change things for me was the passage of the Extreme Pornography laws in 2008 – an ill-conceived and reactionary piece of legislation that criminalised some BDSM porn. I had first encountered BDSM porn at about the age of 19 in what I can only describe as an strongly positive experience. I have already described the lack of representation in the mainstream media and even the internet was a far less accessible source of information in those days (Wikipedia wasn't actually invented until the same year). The moment when I saw the contents of my own head re-enacted in large photo galleries for popular consumption was the definitive moment that I knew I was not alone. It bothered me that the enthusiastic downloading which followed this discovery could have theoretically got me arrested if I had been born later – not because society was striking out against the evils of pornography, but because it was afraid that people like me might prove dangerous.
Further reading around the topic taught me about R v Brown (aka the Spanner Case) and the lasting effect that it had upon the British BDSM community. I learned about the fact that people with BDSM proclivities were not legally protected from discrimination in the same way as most sexual minorities (and that public sector employers were the worst culprits where discrimination was concerned). It became clear to me that many people kept their preferences secret not due to conformity or because they were conflicted about their needs, but because they were genuinely afraid of suffering material harm if the wrong people found out.
Under these circumstances, the negative and inaccurate picture painted by poor representation started to matter to me. Without an insider perspective, it was clearly the only information that most people would ever have on the subject. It was also clear that popular ignorance was objectively harmful since it led to support for discrimination. I began to advocate online in various ways, presenting the subject positively in my own artwork and arguing against negative stances in comment sections and discussions.
This practice put me into conflict with a particularly unpleasant individual on DeviantArt. He had written a series of essays in which he argued that all dominant or sadistic men were abusers and that all submissive or masochistic women were the victims of brainwashing. He expressed the belief that one day society would become enlightened enough to execute all of these men – and the hope that his work would act as a small stepping stone on the road to that outcome.
Although some extremist Atheists have gone there regarding religious people, discovering a Western intellectual calmly arguing for the literal mass murder of my demographic was a pretty new experience for me. I don't consider him to represent many people and have little fear that his predictions will ever come to pass – but I have never since doubted that the fight for public opinion is one that is worth winning.

When Fifty Shades of Grey erupted out of nowhere, it didn't take very long for me to notice. I was utterly thrilled to hear the rumour that not only was a BDSM romance novel selling tons of copies to mainstream audiences, but that many people were recommending it to one another as inspiration for spicing up their sex lives. Seeing the usually hateful and negative tabloid press actively encouraging people to get kinky ideas felt like I had slipped into a different world. I went to my local WHSmiths and boldly plucked a copy off the shelves, eager to be a part of this great moment.
Fortunately I read the blurb on the back cover before I actually got as far as the checkouts. Although many excellent works have stunningly bad blurbs for some reason, the text raised enough red flags for me to put the book down and decide that I would read a few online reviews before buying a copy. It didn't take long to confirm my worst fears – Fifty Shades portrayed BDSM interests as a direct result of mental trauma and BDSM relationships as horribly abusive.
I've since come to the conclusion that Fifty Shades is effectively the same as some of the lesbian erotica books that were written a good few decades ago. They both portray an relatively innocent person being drawn into a relationship with a more experienced individual who is defined by their sexual deviance. They both portray that individual as being the way they are because they are damaged, which in turn makes them possibly dangerous. They both portray the eventual destruction of the relationship as an inevitable culmination of that factor. One might think that the erotic fantasies presented would be undermined by this negative stereotyping, leaving a bad taste in the mouth of people who actually like those things. But neither book is actually aimed at the group it presents – the lesbian books were aimed at the larger market of straight men and Fifty Shades is aimed primarily at vanilla women who have never tried anything like it. Thus the books sell well whilst throwing the people they are hawking under a bus.
I watched as the press coverage gradually changed from encouraging vanilla couples to spice things up to running cautionary tales about women who had suffered bad relationships with 'real' kinky people. Previously we had lived in a world where the BDSM community had very little representation, but now we had moved into one where a derogatory hatchet job was the fastest-selling piece of literature in human history. When I eventually read the book, it was to provide material for an article breaking down some of the many things that it did wrong.

It was when I was bemoaning this state of affairs that an online friend referred me to a webcomic by the name of Sunstone. Upon taking a look, I was so blown away that I read the entire body of work so far in a single mesmerised session.
Sunstone is a romantic comedy about a couple in a BDSM relationship. It is therefore seen from the perspective of kinky characters – and does a vastly better job of it than anything else I've seen. The detail and depth of understanding wildly surpasses other works and gives the characters a real sense of veracity despite their slightly cliqued concepts. More importantly it was an extremely positive story that foreshadows a happy ending – and takes the time to actively debunk the misconceptions and stereotypes that plague so many other treatments of the subject.
Although the comic is still an ongoing work, the second chapter is firmly my favourite of the five created so far. The first section is a pretty idyllic tale and the later instalments begin to enter romantic drama territory that is broadly familiar from works about other types of romance. This is actually a huge deal given everything I've already said. The second chapter, however, tackles some of the specific problems that the BDSM community can face and the scars that they can leave. Yet it manages to do so without ever framing the very existence of BDSM as the source of all the problems, or as something that inevitably gives rise to these kind of injuries. It is in truth a universal story about addiction and self-destructive choices, which happens to be told from the perspective of a social group who never normally get used as a cast of characters.
Perhaps the most potent moment for me in the whole chapter comes when one of the characters talks about all the time she spent trying to figure out what was wrong with herself. Her girlfriend (who acts as the book's narrator) replies “why would anything be wrong?” Whatever level of acceptance a kinky character might receive in the course of a story, the idea that the protagonist – and by extension the author – might ask that question was entirely new information. 

My wife and I own enough books that one of the rooms of our house is effectively a small library. I am a big fan of the cinema and our DVD collection is large enough to fill multiple bookcases. Despite all of this, Sunstone was a story that I had been waiting for over half my life to be told. It is difficult to express how much reading it for the first time meant to me, or how grateful I was that someone had written it. (I'm not saying that no such works previously existed, but they sure weren't easy to just stumble upon). Despite the massive amount of representation I receive in other ways, seeing this much-maligned side of myself decently reflected for the first time was a profoundly happy and valuable moment.

The moral of this story is that representation matters for two reasons. The first of these is simply that it matters to the people who receive it for the first time. Everyone encounters stories that meet them where they are in a particularly profound way and acquire lasting personal value as a result. This is most common when we are young children, to whom every cliché is unknown and every lesson is a new revelation. Some of us grow up to think that the very act of emotionally investing in a story is childish, but the rest of us continue to find more milestone works throughout the course of our lives.
Representation of this type nearly always provides a strong response because it throws a new light on everything that we have previously read. Whether we get something that we never knew we needed or finally find something that we always wanted, the absence of the same representation elsewhere is thrown into sharp relief when we finally find it. It is often interesting to hear the reasons why a particular story means so much to a particular person, but in these cases we can come to an understanding of society's blind spots that is invaluable when going forward.

Representation is a young Whoopi Goldberg seeing the Original Series of Star Trek and being thrilled to see a black woman on TV who 'ain't no maid'. It is the little autistic boy sitting up in excitement because Drax doesn't get metaphors either. It is the fetal amputee crying in the cinema after Fury Road, because she had never imagined that a badass action hero could share her disability. It is the female critic going to see the Ghostbusters remake and realising what her 7 year old self was never given.

The second reason that representation matters is simply that the people being represented have enemies. If ignorance, prejudice and legal discrimination were not a part of the collective experience of the BDSM community, I would simply have laughed at the inadequacies of Fifty Shades and moved on. But as long as these social issues exist, the future will be genuinely affected by the direction in which popular opinion shifts. This is very much also the case with many other groups, who are still fighting to change a society with a history of deliberately denigrating and excluding them. As long as these battles continue, active attempts to improve representation will be both political and correct.
Presenting fictional worlds in which certain social inequalities and divisions are not present actively challenges their existence in our own. Giving storylines usually reserved for one type of person to another quietly denies the idea that they are justified. Accurately showing the world from the perspective of people who are normally used as side characters can reveal challenges and injustices we never knew they faced. As long as some people actually remain opposed to the idea of social equality, the role of stories in shaping public opinion can and will change lives.

It is extremely obvious that individual works often carry a message for their intended audience. But the sum total of all the stories carries a message too. It is unhealthy to teach children that particular demographics are the natural 'main characters' of life – whether they are part of those demographics or not. It is reprehensible to teach privileged adult consumers that the depth of their collective wallets excuses them from the unwelcome labour of seeing the world from perspectives other than their own. It is absurd to claim that artists or critics are acting in bad faith toward their audiences when they try to present social ideas in their work – even if they are commissioned by public funds such as the BBC.

Obviously not everyone who opposes the pro-representation crowd is hostile toward progressive politics – many simply do not want political agendas to hijack the creation of their entertainment. Unfortunately, most arguments along these lines fail to recognise the way in which the refinement of pure art is already mutilated by the status quo.
It is acceptable to argue that you want to judge a film or game by the quality of the story and technical achievements, not the gender split of the characters. But if if you do, you should care about the fact that the gender split of a script has a massive impact on whether a studio chooses to fund a promising pitch in the first place. However equitable your own consumption is, your menu has already been subjected to sexist discrimination before it ever reaches you. As long as industries are claiming that this is simply a matter of giving the consumers what they will buy, it is up to those consumers to actively refute that claim.
It is acceptable to argue that writers should determine the ethnicity of a character organically rather than specifically setting out to tick boxes. But you cannot then argue that Matt Damon was the only logical choice for a film set in ancient China, because how else do you sell a movie about dinosaurs attacking the Great Wall? If you don't care about the ethnicity of the lead characters, you definitely can't ask why audiences would care about the exact same story if it were happening to an unfamiliar foreign person.

Conversely, it is not acceptable to roll your eyes and ask why almost every protagonist's story needs to have a gay character in it somewhere these days. The answer to that should be self-evident – the simple fact that almost every real human life has a gay person in it somewhere. It is a profound abuse of Chekhov's Gun to claim that characters should only differ from the presumed default if it is necessary for the progression of the plot.
Representation in this case – and perhaps in all cases – is a rejection of the convention that certain types of people are supposed to be invisible in fiction. It breaks new ground in storytelling by saying new things within the mainstream forum. It carries the message that just because someone has existed upon the margins it doesn't mean that they inherently belong there. And there is no reason why turning out the ten millionth white action dude and his damsel is artistically superior to that.

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child - Evil All Along?

With just two months to go until the publication of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, everyone is aware that we are in for an eighth instalment of the phenomenally successful franchise. To sharpen our appetites, a sequence from the first part of the book (set 19 years after the battle of Hogwarts) has recently been released to the public. To put it mildly, it features a plot twist that no one saw coming.

The excerpt opens with Harry leading a team of Aurors on an operation to apprehend a dark wizard who is believed to be a former Death Eater. (We learn that Harry has recently been de-aged by a magical brick, restoring him to the version we are familiar with instead of the aged-up one we briefly met in the epilogue to Deathly Hallows). The target wizard is apparently intent upon causing a massacre of 'mud-bloods' upon the anniversary of the defeat of Gellert Grindelwald (a figure from Potter lore with strong implied ties to the Nazis). The group track him down to a train station, where the target flees on a broomstick at the sight of Harry's legendary scar.
The chase sequence that follows is interspersed with flashbacks to Harry's pre-Hogwarts schooling (a subject that we have seen little of). It features Harry receiving much needed attention from a kindly primary school teacher named Elisa. She tells him that he is destined for greatness and sparks his interest with what may be minor displays of magic. She also teaches him that heritage is the most important factor in determining a person's destiny, inviting him to watch the parents picking up the other kids and try to figure out where his schoolmates will fit into the world from what he sees.

The chase ends with Potter and one other Auror managing to run the dark wizard to ground in a patch of forest. Then Harry turns to his muggle-born colleague and cuts him down with the Killing Curse, before uttering the most unlikely words ever to come out of his mouth - “I am Lord Voldemort”. 

Exactly what this twist means cannot be known until the rest of the story is revealed. However, the structure of the narrative and the nature of the flashbacks both seem designed to lead the reader to the conclusion that Harry has in fact been a Death Eater since before the series began.

Unsurprisingly, fans have reacted very strongly to this turn of events. Even so, the main feeling being expressed is one of simple bewilderment. Logic must take somewhat of a back seat in a high magic series, but even so the storyline has always held up fairly well in terms of consistency and internal sense. Given that Harry has personally taken a massive role in both defeating the Death Eaters and in repeatedly killing their founding leader until he stayed dead, what kind of deep cover operation could possibly be worth letting him do that much damage? It's no exaggeration to say that the Death Eaters would have ruled Britain if he'd tried even a little less hard to stop them. What could possibly be important enough about this situation to 'break cover' for?
Other fans protest that this development contradicts the events of The Chamber of Secrets, specifically the point at which Harry draws the Sword of Gryffindor from the sorting hat. According to Dumbledore, only a true Gryffindor could have performed this feat. Surely being one of the few judged worthy to take up Godric's sword precludes him being a murderous spy?

Then again, being a worthy Gryffindor isn't necessarily the same as being 'good'. The primary virtues of Gryffindor house are bravery, nerve, courage and daring – all qualities that Harry possesses in abundance. Certainly being a double agent is not considered inherently cowardly in the Potterverse – Severus Snape is described by Harry as probably the bravest men he ever knew. An argument could be made about the quality of chivalry – but sneaking around and using trickery have always been prominent amongst Harry's tactics.
Ultimately, being 'just' and 'true' are actually Hufflepuff virtues – as demonstrated by canon Hufflepuff characters like Cedric Diggory, Nymphadora Lupin and Wade Wilson. Hufflepuff has also produced the fewest dark wizards of any house, implying that being sorted into Gryffindor does not preclude one from taking that path.

Not all fans are up in arms about this radical plot twist. Some are genuinely curious to see where Rowling is going with this storyline. Others more cynically point out that such shake-ups are necessary to keep the franchise going over such a long period, expressing surprise that such a headline-grabbing twist has been so long in coming. Others blame the expressions of outrage upon the fans of the film series, claiming that those who have not read the books simply don't understand the nuances of Rowling's story-telling. This is of course rather unfair and a disservice to the vast number of people who have become fans of the characters through that medium. Daniel Radcliffe (who plays Harry in the film series) has avoided making a substantial comment on the change, simply Tweeting enough to feed the publicity machine:

“Voldemort?!?!? #sayitaintso”

One thing common to every fan is the assumption that this will not actually be a permanent change. Elisa is described as wearing 'an hourglass shaped piece of jewellery' which many are already suspecting is a Time-Turner. Did the Death Eaters send someone back in time after their defeat to indoctrinate Harry at his most vulnerable? Almost everyone is certain that some kind of second twist will restore the character to his proper self, although Rowling has taken the time to debunk a couple of the more obvious possibilities:

“This is not a Boggart, not Polyjuice potion, not the Imperius Curse. It really is Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived himself.”

Unfortunately, many fans feel that no second twist can really make up for the upset of doing this in the first place. Many aspects of Rowling's world clearly represent real-world social battles and problems – problems that have not entirely gone away. Harry has been embraced by a generation as the champion of the right side of these battles, so declaring that he was always insincere has been described as 'a slap in the face'. For some enthusiasts the very suggestion that Potter was secretly in sympathy with the woman who cut racial abuse into his friend's arm is enough to make them put down the books for good, however the plot shakes out. The Potter fandom will quite possibly never be the same again.

(P.S. If you are a Potter fan who has been screaming at the page for the whole article, don't worry! It's not real, I'm just making comment on something that is something that is. Unfortunately the metaphor can't fully satirise the most serious aspect of the real story, which can be found here.)

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Age Of Sigmar - R.I.P. Warhammer Fantasy

When I was a child, I loved playing board games with my family (still do as a matter of fact). As a result of this, board games were not uncommon as a Christmas present in our household. Although most of them were fairly normal, at the age of 8 I got a rather different one – Space Crusade by MB games.
Space Crusade was one of several MB games that were licensed to use Games Workshop IP. The game was essentially a simplified version of Space Hulk, using Tactical/Devastator squads in place of Terminators and providing the Aliens players with a horde of 'Chaos' characters that also included Orks, Tyranids and 'androids'.
The very concept of this game was rather outside of anything I'd played before and I couldn't make heads or tails of the actual rules. In a touching display of fatherly affection, my Dad stayed up all night figuring out how to play it. Over the following years we played many campaigns, with him always serving as the 'bad guys'. I loved it enough to get myself both HeroQuest and Battle Masters in subsequent years, but Space Crusade remained special.

The next big shift came in about 1993, when I chanced across an 'Imperial Space Marine Squad' (known to some veterans as the RT01 'Womble Marines') in a model shop. I bought two 10 man squads in quick succession for use as additional models in Space Crusade (the term 'game balance' was as yet foreign to me). More importantly, I was given a product catalogue for Games Workshop and became aware of their main lines for the first time.
Despite my fondness for Space Crusade, it was the Warhammer Fantasy boxed set that captured my imagination. As luck would have it, I actually had enough money to make the huge box mine. I'd been doggedly saving up my pocket money for a long time with the intention of buying an original Star Wars AT-AT toy that I'd found in a shop – after some consideration, I changed my target and got myself a copy of Warhammer instead.
My Dad drew the line at the huge tomes of rules that came in the box (it had taken him all night to learn Space Crusade after all). Thankfully, several of my friends were interested enough to start collecting armies and playing Warhammer against me. I decided that financial constraints made it most sensible to build on one of the two armies provided, so after reading the background material for both I settled on the humorous Orcs and Goblins.
My army grew and grew and our dining room table was occupied for days at a time by huge battles. Unfortunately the interests of my friends eventually declined, whilst mine remained strong. This is pretty much typical for me – once I get keen on something I very rarely go off it. 

The box that started me off.

My lack of opponents prompted me to attend the games held at my local Games Workshop store. Frankly, these games usually sucked – I was only able to field one or two units as part of a large team battle and the prohibition on characters meant that my leaderless Greenskins typically routed as soon as battle was joined. The staff also barred the models I brought on some occasions because they were 'old models' or in one case because the sides of the bases weren't painted. However, it was at this store that I found an advert for the Worksop Wargames Society.
I loved the Society when I tried it out and it rapidly became my most important weekly leisure activity. The club introduced me to the wide array of games that existed beyond GW – such as Magic: the Gathering. I'd already been briefly introduced to D&D by a Warhammer opponent and the club offered a degree of role-playing opportunities too. In hindsight the place was far from perfect – there were no regular female members, the role-playing standards were about what you'd expect from a group of teenage boys and the keenest Warhammer player was a neo-Nazi and a bad loser. But it was perhaps the first time I'd had a large group of friends, especially one based on shared interests. The weekly schedule also did a lot to structure my gaming into a real hobby activity, backed up by the geek culture that the society provided.
Although the club did a lot to broaden my gaming horizons, Warhammer remained my most commonly played game with the possible exception of Necromunda. I was loyal to the Greenskins until 1999, when a new-found adolescent fascination with vampires happened to coincide with the emergence of the Vampire Counts army. I immediately decided that I wanted to collect a Lahmian force. Thankfully a combination of second hand models from club members and customised spares allowed me to raise the army quite cheaply. I was never very good with them – most battles consisted of Lahmians reaping enemies worth a fraction of their own value while the rest of their army got destroyed – but the implacable dead and the mighty Vampiresses made a welcome change from the fractious Greenskins and relatively puny Goblin lords. 

A Lahmian Thrall and a Necromancer flanked by Grave Guard. Honest. 

The thing that eventually caused my Warhammer gaming to decline was my move to University after 2000. This was in no way because I abandoned my interests in order to pursue 'grown up' or fashionable activities exclusively. The Clubs and Societies Fair in the first week was pretty much a welcome to paradise and the Wargames and Roleplaying Society (WARPSoc) was the best one that I joined.
WARPSoc has a focus toward role-playing and the gender-diverse society offered a massively higher standard than I'd experienced before. After a little hesitation I joined the weekly LARP and found my love of role-playing being combined with my lifelong appreciation of Medieval Re-enactment and sword-fighting (the only competitive physical activity I excel at). This caused me to focus more on RPGs, but I still loved the cerebral competitive element of wargames too much to just give them up.
The real problem was that I didn't have access to my parent's dining table any more. Unless the society booked a location, it was almost impossible to secure an ideal playing surface for a game of Warhammer. Even then, WARPSoc sessions were usually a bit of a tight fit for an entire battle. By comparison the swift and portable Magic: the Gathering was great for social play around the campus, leading to Magic taking over. I attended the Worksop club during the holidays for a while, but then moved to Wales full time.
The final nail in the coffin was provided by GW themselves. Their regular habit of publishing new backward-incompatible editions of Warhammer meant that eventually my rulebooks became obsolete. I couldn't prepare an army without re-buying the army books and I couldn't fully understand the army book without re-buying the core rules – creating an unappealing level of investment for an occasional game and thus barring me from play altogether.

WARPSoc is a wonderful group of people and most of my close friends have come from the ranks of the society. It provided me with a place where I could be different and still belong and a gateway into the rest of the Alternative community. I loved the society so much that on the day I handed in my Masters Dissertation I went straight over to the Clubs and Societies Fair and helped their stall get more new recruits. One of my signings was a wonderful Christian girl who had been trying to weigh her genuine desire to try out role-playing against the last echoes of the 1980s D&D moral panic. We've just celebrated our seventh wedding anniversary and we both game with members of WARPSoc every week.

Without Warhammer, I'd never have joined the Worksop club or WARPSoc after it. I like to believe that God's plan for me would have led certain things to happen in different ways, so I can't say with certainty that my life would be completely different if I'd bought that AT-AT instead. But it is fair to say that my marriage, my social circle and my hobbies today all owe a great deal to the day that I came home with a big red box full of Elves and Goblins. I may not have played very often in the last decade, but Warhammer Fantasy Battle has had a surprisingly important place in my life.

The reason I recount this tale now is that Warhammer Fantasy has come to an end as of this year. Technically this demise took place across a series of 8th Edition supplements called The End Times which started in 2014, but I've only become aware of it now due to the highly public way in which GW has chosen to mutilate the corpse.

In a large fanfare of publicity, GW has unveiled a new Fantasy Battle game called Warhammer: Age of Sigmar. This has been accompanied by a radical shift in their business model – the game's core rules and all of the army lists for the existing races have been placed online for free download.
Needless to say, I was very excited. Just a few mouse clicks and I would possess up to date core rules, a new army list for my Vampire Counts and even a list for my old Greenskins! Being now in possession of a dining table of our very own, Warhammer would become a thing that I could do again.

Then I read the rules.

In retrospect, my first comment after doing this – that it was as if E. L. James had rewritten Star Wars from the perspective of Jar Jar Binks – was slightly harsh. But only slightly so. The game discards victory points in favour of a 'fight to the death' system which is nostalgic to me but clearly favours killer models over clever tactical play. It discards points values in favour of 'field whatever you like' – a system that me and my friends tried exactly once and found too uneven to be worth bothering with. It discards unit formations and manoeuvring rules in favour of loose mobs moving in a fashion stolen from Warhammer 40,000. It ditches psychology and routing units in favour of testosterone-fuelled brawls to the last man. The practice of rolling a die to decide who moves first has been extended to every turn of the game, meaning that whoever moves second must make tactical decisions without knowing who will move next. I'm not sure that Age of Sigmar is a bad game in itself, but it is so obviously inferior to the preceding editions of Warhammer in every measurable way that it makes no sense as a sequel from the same company.

Having read up on the subject, the sad truth is that Age of Sigmar was never intended to be a true sequel to 8th edition. Games Workshop have always sold more Space Marines than anything else, but reports suggest that the overall sales of Warhammer 40,000 items had made Fantasy into a tiny portion of their profits. With the large range of Fantasy models taking up as much shelf space as their more profitable sci-fi rivals, GW decided to scrap it and bring out a new second string that they hope will be more popular.
This is why so many of the distinctive and vaguely authentic-feeling rules of medieval battle have been switched out for something that plainly resembles 40K. It is also the reason that a new faction of obvious Space Marine knock-offs have been prominently introduced in the first wave of new releases. More subtly, it is why the game rules give these warriors a massive play advantage over everyone else. There is no restriction on the number of models you can deploy in Age of Sigmar, but a severely outnumbered force is given a special potentially game-winning advantage. Unfortunately the loss of the points value system means that one powerful model is no longer considered equal to three or four weak ones when it comes to counting heads. It is a fair bet that the Stormcast Eternals will be the strongest troop type in play, meaning that a player with a big enough box of them should be able to defeat anyone by deploying the correct number of men. Presumably GW hopes that Space Marine fans who try out the Eternals will love the instant mastery of the game that this brings them.

Space Marine Commander Dante and an original new character from Age of Sigmar.

GW also seem to be basing their new strategy on the knowledge that any fan-base is a pyramid. A small group of really keen fans sit loftily above a far wider base of people with a more casual interest. As a result they have decided to lower the level of interest required to play the game in the first place. On the one hand, the new rules make any form of serious and rewarding competitive play impossible. On the other, they allow anyone who buys (and assembles) a box of models to play a 'proper' game anywhere without further preparation. Such tactics might knock the tip off the pyramid, but if the base expands as planned GW will make far more money.

The setting of Sigmar is also almost entirely unrelated to Fantasy Battle. This is due to the story arc of The End Times, which I have now read a synopsis of (apparently the real thing would have set me back a lot of money). Basically every conflict suddenly became decisive, with established characters, population centres and even entire factions being wiped out with with ridiculous rapidity. This is mostly just destructive, but new and interesting things started to emerge from the havoc – like the Dark Elf Malekith becoming king of the High Elves and the Vampire Counts being recognised as legitimate Imperial nobility. The High Elf Mage Teclis came up with a plan to stop Chaos - he would bind each of the eight winds of magic into a person, creating divine beings that could stand against Chaos on equal terms. Most of the non-Chaos races got an Incarnate with several becoming embodiments of their own gods along the way. The Incarnates rallied all of the good and evil races into the most awesome alliance that the Warhammer World had ever seen and went to challenge Archaon, who was trying to open the mother of all Chaos gates in the ruins of Middenheim. They all lost, the new Chaos rift destroyed the Old World and everyone in it died. The End.

Many players seem to have been hoping that GW would backtrack when 9th edition came out, declaring it to be just one vision of the end of the world. Until the last book, many hoped that the interesting new alliances and factions were actually going somewhere besides oblivion.
 Unfortunately the new Age of Sigmar proceeds onwards from these events. Sigmar makes new planets with the help of a giant space dragon. The Incarnates become the gods of these worlds and spend an Age collecting Old World souls and sticking them in new bodies. The resurrected populations live in peace and harmony together for many generations until Chaos invades and conquers most of the planets. Sigmar invents magic Space Marines and leads the reconquest, which is the setting for the game. This means that the game takes place in a setting where everything the existing player base cared about has been destroyed, rather than being a simple reboot. It's also a bit weird for a new player compared to the pseudo-medieval setting we've seen in Fantasy.

Given all of this, you have to ask why GW wrote Age of Sigmar versions of the old army lists in the first place. Officially they wanted to 'give the old models a send off' but I don't really buy that. If GW really wanted to leave players with the ability to keep using the old models, they could simply have made the 8th edition literature available as free downloads instead. The only reason to provide the converted rules is to lure their owners into trying Age of Sigmar, although I can't imagine that actively inviting the direct comparison with Fantasy Battle will win many fans. If I sound like I'm looking a gift horse in the mouth, bear in mind that some of the new rules require the player to engage in physical comedy while using the model. A GW rep has assured everyone that this unprecedented move won't be something we seem more of in the future, but was simply intended to make veteran players too embarrassed to use the old models in public (no really). The old game and the traditional armies haven't been given a decent send off, they've been zombified as billboards in a manner so disrespectful that my Lahmians would wrinkle their noses.

As a role-player, the apocalyptic ending of the Old World ought to put me in mind of the World of Darkness lines produced by White Wolf. After spending many years producing an expanding range of modern horror games set against the backdrop of impeding doom, White Wolf eventually brought their products to a close with a slew of books that detailed the final destruction of the World of Darkness. As soon as the dust settled, however, White Wolf brought out a 'rebooted' range of WOD books that essentially set about remaking the old games. 

Who would DO that?

There are few things that say 'commercialism over art' more plainly than remaking your own successful series the moment you've finished the first version. Many WOD players saw no reason why they would ever want to involve themselves in a line that was simply the same thing without the built up setting elements that they had become invested in.
The reason that the new series managed to thrive in this hostile environment is that it is really good. White Wolf had patiently learned lessons from their previous round of experiences and dedicated themselves to producing the highest quality of product that they could using this knowledge. Most role-players have their preferred incarnation of the World of Darkness, but relatively few would deny that both versions are excellent products within the wider marketplace.

Unfortunately, Games Workshop has not taken the same high road. Age of Sigmar is not an evolved form of Warhammer Fantasy Battle – it's an aggressively diminished parody designed exclusively to appeal to the lowest common denominator, a target identified by a vague perception of current popular gaming choices.
As such, the role-playing event that Age of Sigmar really reminds me of is Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition. Once the unquestioned leader of the fantasy RPG field, the makers of D&D went wild with greed when they read about the number of players that World of Warcraft had managed to hook. Seized by the mad delusion that a huge slice of the Western population were now keen fantasy role-players, Wizards engaged in a drastic re-write of D&D that was intended almost exclusively to create a tabletop simulation of playing WOW.
Unfortunately, the results of this effort were far less fit for the purpose of running a D&D game than version 3.5 had been. After a cursory investigation, many D&D fans decided to stick with version that they already owned. Meanwhile the vast armies of WOW fans proved less than interested in leaving their gaming PCs to perform a substantially different activity with whatever WOW-playing friends lived close enough to physically visit their house. Wizards have since released the 5th Edition of D&D, a tuned-up version of 3.5 that some have described as the 'we're sorry' version of the game.

There will never be a 'we're sorry' version of Warhammer Fantasy Battle. GW ended the game line because it wasn't making enough money – even if the new game fails they have no reason to go back to the last struggling property. The time has come to raise a mug of Bugman's XXXXXX and toast its passing. It was a good game while it lasted and 31 years is an incredible run for any 'living' game. So farewell, Warhammer Fantasy - you will be missed.

Of course, the lack of an acceptable current version of the rules might prompt more people to play with the outdated versions that I still own. I may yet take the field again...

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

The UK General Election 2015

On May 7th, my country held a General Election to determine the structure of Parliament for the next five years. The result was a shock for almost everyone and a profound disappointment for most of those within my own friendship circle. I've been trying to figure out how best to put my feelings into words ever since... and also trying to get a handle on the truth of the situation. This has taken a lot longer than I anticipated, simply because facing the matter is so depressing that I've rarely been able to stomach working on this article. Even so, I feel these results are worth posting belatedly.

If I had to state my personal emotional reaction to the General Election, it would probably be:

My country held an anonymous survey of the adult population which proved that a majority of them were ignorant, hateful or selfish enough to willingly cause harm or death to their neighbours and cared nothing for other people's rights. As a result, this was adopted as public policy.

I'm not trying to say that this is fair, but it's honestly how I feel. The stakes of this election were extremely large where the future of British society were concerned and a Conservative majority was the worst of all probable outcomes.

For the benefit of my overseas readers, I should explain that our country has traditionally had two electable parties – the right wing Conservatives (or Tories) and the left wing Labour party. I was born under the premiership of the massively influential Tory leader Margaret Thatcher (who destroyed the power of Trade Unions in this country) and her party continued to reign until I was 15. Unfortunately the Labour party remodelled itself into the centrist New Labour shortly before defeating them, meaning that I have never experienced a firmly left wing government during my 33 years of life.
In 2010, dissatisfaction with both these parties resulted in a hung parliament. The result was a coalition government led by the Conservatives but also incorporating the left wing Liberal Democrats (traditionally the firm but distant third place party). Although I was displeased to see David Cameron take leadership, as a Liberal voter I was pleased to see the party finally advancing and hoped that it was a sign of genuine three party contests to come.
Unfortunately the ability of the Liberal Democrats to restrain the Conservative agenda proved far smaller than the left hoped. By repeatedly backing Conservative moves in order to maintain a functional administration, Deputy Prime Minister Clegg lost all credibility with many people and the Liberal prognosis for the 2015 election was always dire.

Having taken the reins of a country in severe economic difficulty, Cameron focused on attempting to cut public spending whilst encouraging private sector growth. Unfortunately, a conspicuous part of this broadly sensible policy consisted of slashing the provisions designed to keep the poor from utter destitution and the incapacitated from dying. A relentless propaganda campaign painted this not as a process of grim necessity, but as a just action based on the recognition that these people didn't deserve the provision in the first place.
As a predictable result of these actions, poverty became more acute for a lot of struggling people and some of the incapacitated started to die. When declaring his intended policies if re-elected this year, Cameron announced that he intended to retain these welfare cuts in all future spending plans regardless of the size of the available public purse. He first announced this from a gold-plated lectern after a free banquet, apparently not seeing any negative symbolism in doing so. Having already removed free legal assistance for poor people in cases where the defendant is the State, he also promised to scrap the Human Rights Act – which binds the UK to observe the European Convention on Human Rights. He has also pledged to increase the amount of government censorship and surveillance applied to law-abiding members of the general public, declaring an intention to move away from the philosophy that 'as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone'.

On May 7th 2015, the population of my country promoted his party from head of a coalition to a lone majority government. On a practical level, this means five years of the same unpleasant government without any of the minor restraints they formerly faced. On an emotional level, it's hard not to take it as an overt demonstration that the Dark Side is stronger in Britain.

When seeking escape from this feeling, the first thing that must be remembered is that the Conservatives didn't actually need to secure over 50% of the vote to get over 50% of the seats. Although there is no doubt that they received the greatest number of votes cast, the Tories actually only got 36.9% of the vote. Of course, many people also voted for the even worse UK Independence Party – a 'straight talking' newcomer that publicly skirts far closer to racism and homophobia than the other major parties care to and whose candidates are exposed as being far worse in private with almost comical regularity. UKIP polled 12.6% of the vote (more than the Liberal Democrats and the left wing Green Party put together) but their support was so evenly diluted across the country that they only got a single MP.
Added together, this gives the political right 49.5% of the vote. But only 66.1% of those registered to vote actually did so, giving them the active support of less than 32.8% of the national adult population. Even adding in the statistically insignificant numbers that voted for the avowedly racist British National Party, the proudly fascist National Front, the anti-feminist Justice For Men And Boys and the delightful War Veterans Pro-Traditional Family Party (who believe that anti-social and criminal behaviour is caused by teaching schoolboys that 'homosex is OK') the total number of practising Sith in this country may be less than 1 in 3 of the people you meet on the street.

I say 'meet on the street' because this certainly is not a reflection of many individual social circles. People tend to group together based on ideological common ground, with the result of excluding differing people from their lives. This is obvious to anyone with a Facebook feed – if mine truly monitored the pulse of the nation we'd have had a Green Party landslide – but the scale of the segregation is often underestimated. In a generally fascinating article, one American author stated that he didn't believe any of the 150 people who form his Dunbar's Number of social contacts were creationists Link. Using overall polls of belief within the USA, he then calculated that the odds of randomly selecting 150 non-creationist Americans in a row were approximately the same as those of randomly selecting one specific atom from the entire mass of the Earth.
Of course, he's probably slightly wrong in this estimate of his friends. There was no statement in the article that he'd actually surveyed all 150 people on that specific subject. It's easy to assume that a generally like-minded person will hold the same opinion as you on a given subject, but they can surprise you when you actually ask. After the election the media made much of the concept of the 'Shy Tory' – someone who votes Conservative but won't admit it to their left wing social circle. But even if a few folk blind-side you, the vast majority of those who differ are likely to be in separate social circles composed of others like themselves. The very concept of the 'Safe Seat' in politics proves that these divisions can be large-scale enough to be geographically mapped, even in the internet age.

As a result of this, the question of 'why did so many people vote Conservative?' isn't an easy one for me to seek an answer to. I just don't know that many Conservatives to ask. The answer from some of my left-wing friends is simple enough – 'they figured that the Tories would do things that benefited them, and didn't care about the harm they'd do to others.'
Unfortunately, that answer won't do. Although there are certainly people who will endorse a universal erosion of rights because their social privilege will protect them and who will let others starve in exchange for a tax cut, this isn't a fair assumption to make about all Tory voters. None of us truly know what will happen if a given party takes power – we simply make our best predictions and cast a vote accordingly. Voting for UKIP because you believe that they will end racial inequality isn't immoral, it's just really dumb. If someone says that they truly believe voting Conservative is the best thing for Britain, my question must not be 'why are you such a dishonest prick?' but rather 'what does the world look like from over there?'

Although I don't know many Conservatives, I do know some. I therefore messaged the one person on my wall who was conspicuously celebrating the result, asking him about the issues of Welfare cuts and the repeal of the Human Rights Act.
The response was quite illuminating. On the subject of Welfare, he argued that the current Welfare state was unsustainable in size due to the expanding actions of the previous Labour government. He acknowledged the damage caused by withdrawing these supports, but argued that this was why they should never have been erected in the first place.
From this viewpoint, the responsibility for the harm caused by the cuts does not lie with the government making them. It lies with the Labour politicians who made impossible promises in the first place, thus forcing the economic grown-ups to be the bad guys by reneging on them out of necessity. This perspective does nothing to explain the deliberate exaggeration of the actual Welfare bill by including public sector pensions in the figures, the systematic denial of benefits to people who are still legally entitled to them or the attempts to use the unemployed as a pool of coerced unpaid labour, but it does much to explain how many Tory voters can sleep at night.
On the subject of the Human Rights Act, he cited the desire to avoid unjust judgements being forced upon us by Europe. This kind of thinking is hard to sympathise with, given that the media portrayal of most controversial cases and of the actual influence of the European court has been so wildly inaccurate.
However, he also pointed out that these rights would still broadly exist without the Act. This is not unfair – Britain outlawed slavery a long time before the Convention on Human Rights was written and ditching it won't throw that into question. We have many hundreds of years of law protecting most of these rights, the Act just puts them all in one convenient place.
The Convention isn't a holy scripture and there is no reason to think that it couldn't be improved. The Tories have always stated that they would replace the Act with a new Bill of Rights, which could theoretically be better than the Convention it replaces (although nothing they've said so far supports that idea). When it comes down to it, my problem with this proposition is based on a profound suspicion towards the motives of those making it. Many of their more problematic and abusive actions in the past (such as attempting to force Welfare claimants to do unpaid work) have been challenged on the basis of the Human Rights Act. The fact that Britain cannot change the Convention also provides a degree of security to its provisions that the new law would not have. I can only perceive the government's actions as an attempt to remove a limitation upon their own power, in order to permit them to oppress or abuse the British people – but perhaps some of those who bestowed votes upon them take a more positive view.
When looking into the question of 'why do people vote Conservative?' more generally, the most interesting thing I came across was the work of Jonathan Haidt. Although I haven't yet read his book, I've read several articles explaining what he says in it. Haidt proposes that the left and the right are equally influenced by moral concerns when casting their vote – but that they have very different feelings about which moral questions are the most pressing.
Haidt divides moral sensitivities into six different axes, representing different concerns. These are Care/Harm (protecting and tending to others), Fairness/Cheating (justice and consistency), Liberty/Oppression (concern for freedoms), Loyalty/Betrayal (standing with your own group), Authority/Subversion (respect for tradition and legitimate authority) and Sanctity/Degradation (respect for taboos and aversion to 'disgusting' things). He surveyed a large number of people with questions related to these different fields, noting how their responses varied with their position on the political spectrum.

As a group, the left showed noticeably more resistance to the idea of kicking a dog in the head for personal gain. Conversely, they showed far less resistance to the idea of repeating unflattering lies about their home country to a foreign audience in exchange for the same profit.
Although most left wingers would probably be quite happy with the notion that they take a firmer stand against puppy kicking than against unpatriotic behaviour, a true moral divide would show increased resistance to both ideas. Instead the left demonstrated a far stronger passion on the Care/Harm axis and a weaker regard for the Loyalty/Betrayal axis (and indeed most of the others).

The overall conclusion that people have drawn from this work is that the left have an overwhelming concern for the Care/Harm axis. In fact, they care so much about it that it can overpower the other concerns entirely, creating what the right dismiss as 'bleeding heart liberals'. Ironically, the right consider themselves more concerned with Liberty/Oppression than the left – because the left are more willing to make protective laws obliging people to behave a certain way and to condemn opposition as immoral. The main reason that the concept of the 'Shy Tory' gained so much currency in the media is that it portrays the right wing voter as the suppressed victim of an ideological dictatorship. Many on the right have been known to complain that accusations of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia are used in an attempt to invalidate their stances, allowing social changes that are undemocratically opposed to what many citizens want to see.
Haidt's model does shed some light on how the right wing voter thinks differently to the left with regard to the election issues I've described. To a left wing voter, the question of whether benefits cuts will cause large amounts of human suffering is vastly more important than the question of whether continuing to distribute public money in this fashion is fair. To a right wing voter, these moral issues have a far different weighting and stories about 'scroungers' and 'cheats' strike a powerful chord. It is obvious to the left that human rights should be equally available to all humans as a shield against harm, but empathy with the Loyalty/Betrayal axis allows the right to justify a hierarchy of protections in which immigrants lose out to locals and foreign civilians lose out to our soldiers.

For me personally, engaging with these theories has in no way lessened my commitment to the political left. I honestly believe that the moral character of an act is greatly dependant upon the intended or foreseeable consequences regarding the well-being of others. I recognise the importance of things like justice and liberty, but ultimately see them vital foundations of the popular well-being. I am entirely at ease with the idea that morally correct laws should be passed even if most people don't agree with them – with moral correctness here being largely defined as shielding people from harm that they would otherwise (continue to) suffer.
It is however very important for me to recognise that the actual building blocks of my moral perspective can be out of sync with those of others. It is important because ultimately we must engage with right wing voters and change their minds. People may socially isolate themselves from the politically different, but elections serve as a painful reminder to us all that the very existence of those differing people can harm us. It is therefore necessary to reach out and try to sway others to our side. The left is far more passionate about this than the right in many cases – but we must recognise the difference in moral priorities that we will encounter. I honestly believe that the choice of a Conservative government will have a terrible effect upon at least some sections of the British public in Care/Harm terms, but it is sobering to realise that this isn't nearly as important to the moral centres of many other people as it is to mine.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

The Fifty-first Shade - Fifty Shades of Grey and trying it for real.

Apparently 50 Shades of Grey is really popular. Over 100 million copies of the book series have been sold, with the film now set to give the whole thing another round of popularity and publicity. Since the key element of the erotica tale is a BDSM relationship, sales of fetish gear have also sky-rocketed as many people previously underexposed to such things (or lacking a social in-road to broach the idea to their partner) have awakened to the idea of trying it out. If you are one of these people (or thinking of becoming one) this article is for you.
Unlike many articles that offer criticism of the books, I don't want to to start out by stating that it is wrong to enjoy 50 Shades as a piece of fantasy. It isn't the most well-crafted tale of our time, but as a man who owns all five Resident Evil films I understand that entertaining trash has its place. 50 Shades essentially exists to provoke sexual fantasies and apparently it does a more than passable job for a lot of people.
Sexual fantasies are not always politically correct and over-analysing them isn't always beneficial or productive. If you enjoy imagining being Ana then go ahead and imagine it. (I guess some people enjoy imagining being Christian in some scenes, but hopefully that involves willfully stripping away basically everything about the man as a person).
Projecting yourself into the enjoyable parts of an existence that would have serious downsides if you lived it is entirely normal – few people really want to be a traumatised orphan, but that doesn't stop them flocking to a new Batman film. Ana's life isn't a pretty picture either - but the reputed 20% of the film she will spend having sex is still a big draw. Being aroused by the idea of a powerful man taking control of your life doesn't make you a traitor to feminism – it just means you have a fantasy you enjoy and possibly a lifestyle choice you're free to make. If the sole result of this series is to inspire millions of hours of enjoyable masturbation across the western world, the world is probably a better place for having it.

Of course, that isn't the sole result. If all those rope and whip sales are any indication, 50 Shades is inspiring a vast number of people to start exploring the world of BDSM for real. The reaction to this from those already involved in the fetish community has generally come down to an expression of two fears - that couples who attempt to re-enact the books in isolation will get themselves hurt, and that people who enter the fetish scene armed only with the books will believe themselves experts and mess up badly. Truthfully both of these fears are pretty reasonable, so I've decided to become a small part of the solution and provide a few hopefully useful pointers.
More general social commentators have expressed fears that holding 50 Shades up as an aspirational love story could warp the expectations of a generation and lead them to accept or seek out abuse. That argument is very important, but I don't really have the space to cover it here. Most people have been told many other (better) romance stories besides this one - but 50 Shades is probably the first and only BDSM tale that most folks have read, which gives it a massive amount of influence in that area.
I ought to mention that although I have a fair amount of knowledge, my practical experience is pretty limited. I'm not trying to be an authoritative guide here – I'm just trying to be a far better guide than 50 Shades is. The fact that this sets the bar so very low gives me both confidence and motivation.

It's OK to be Kinky.

Although BDSM proclivities are FAR more common than those without them think, being kinky is an usual state of being. Like many abnormalities, this leads many kinky people at some point to ask themselves “why am I like this?” Since kink often involves liking things we are generally conditioned to see as bad, it's easy to come up with some fairly negative theories – and some of those around you may find it easier still.
Blossoming as a kinky person can sometimes be a process very similar to coming out as gay. Becoming able to talk about it and confident enough to identify as such to others is a gradual thing. However, it's also the second half of the journey. The first is an internal one, in which the person grapples with questions like 'does liking pain mean I'm screwed up or self-destructive?' * and 'does wanting to beat someone more than I want to make love to them make me a bad person?' **
Some people still struggling with such issues tend to go hot and cold on the issue of BDSM. Desire and interest draw them in for a while, then self-loathing and worry drive them away. Some attempt to repress the interest whilst being powerless to change it, remaining unfulfilled for a long time. Tragically, some even end up secretly paying professionals to give them kink sessions without ever asking their partner to do the same things to them. All of this is bad and the sooner a kinky person is able to accept themselves and be accepted by those around them the better.

The reason I bring this up is that 50 Shades is actually a really negative portrayal of BDSM in some ways. The series casually implies that Grey's preferences are a result of childhood trauma and mental issues – a toxic idea that surveys of actual kinky people have repeatedly shown to be false. Like Edward's bloodlust in the often-compared Twilight series, his sadism is portrayed as the one scary downside of an embarrassingly idealised love interest – and unlike being a sparkly bloodsucking monster five times her age, seems like it might actually be a deal breaker. When Ana gets angry at the end of the book she delivers a very negative judgement of his character based on his S&M tastes, which he accepts as accurate.
Yet in spite of all this, it's clear that the only reason for 50 Shades to exist is to present fantasies about S&M for your enjoyment. As a result, it is a work that can encourage both interest and self-loathing in a kinky person at the same time – which can't be terribly healthy. If you feel inspired to make BDSM part of your life, don't swallow the idea that you are inherently doing something wrong (but oh so right). You aren't. It doesn't make you a bad person and you have nothing to be ashamed of.

*No. Pain is just a physical sensation like any other. We first encounter pain in association with harm, but a lifetime of aversion therapy doesn't mean it's actually bad in and of itself. Obviously the primary purpose of pain is to act as an alarm system to protect us. However, adrenaline exists so that we can flee or kill to protect ourselves and few have an issue with tricking the body into giving us a shot for pleasure.
**No. The key here is the intended result of the session. Typically a fantasy that owes anything to your practical desires for real life will leave the subject of your whipping pleased and fulfilled by the experience. Dreaming about relentlessly stimulating someone attractive until they lose every last vestige of self-control is actually really normal.

YKINMKBYKIOK (No, really).

As you might guess, the BDSM community uses a lot of jargon and acronyms in its online communication. Probably the most absurd acronym in semi-regular use is the snappy YKINMKBYKIOK – which translates as Your Kink Is Not My Kink, But Your Kink Is OK.
The truth is, a lot of people are extremely 'vanilla' in taste. Perplexing as it is, they see nothing attractive about BDSM and react to images of people being bound, gagged and flogged for fun along the lines of “Gah, why would you like that, what is wrong with you?” If you're a 50 Shades fan, this probably isn't you. But the fetish community is a diverse place, and if you go peeking into other people's dungeons for long enough you will undoubtedly see some things that will make you think “Gah, why would you like that, what is wrong with you?”
If everyone went ahead and voiced these thoughts, the BDSM community couldn't exist as a social entity. Everyone would be too busy rejecting each other to remain on speaking terms. As such, people within these social networks are expected to give the same respect to others that they desire for themselves and accept that fetishes they don't happen to share are equally valid. This is not to say that you can't condemn anything, but concerns should be grounded on questions of consent and risk-management ethics rather than on whether looking at it makes you excited or nauseated.

50 Shades doesn't really put forward this concept. The process of defining the couple's 'hard limits', for example, is couched as little more than confirmation of the fact that she doesn't want to do things no sane person wants to do anyway. It's therefore important to learn this idea before you start discussing kink with other fetishists – hopefully including your partner.
If you happen to find someone who shares your interests, recognise that they might also have interests that you don't share. If your partner reacts with enthusiasm and relief when you nervously venture the idea of whips and chains, don't call them disgusting if they bring up the idea of urinating on their face. If that's too much you don't ever have to do it - but denigrating them as a person and making them afraid to share their wishes won't help any part of your lives together. Since they may have fetishes they've not told you about, it's better to practice this kind of respcetful consideration at all times – casually reviling a third party can cut almost as deeply if they're doing what your lover has always wanted.
I've talked before about the problems kinky people can face from mainstream society. The increased acceptance that 50 Shades has brought is therefore a good thing – but it can be overestimated. 50 Shades has not caused YKINMKBYKIOK to be more widely understood, which limits the social effectiveness of the book.
There are certainly plenty of people out there who take a 'whatever makes you happy' approach to other people's lives. Unfortunately, a very noticeable segment of society remains mired in the 'different = bad' thinking that festers in every schoolyard. The sheer popularity of 50 Shades means that some kink is now regarded as normal, but that's all. The boundary fence of 'normality' now cuts through the middle of kinkyland instead of running along the border, but the consequences of being found on the wrong side haven't gone away.

BDSM includes 3 separable groups of activities and none of them are sex.

BDSM 'play' includes a wide range of activities. In many cases, these activities are highly arousing for people who are into them. For that reason, kink is often used as a form of foreplay or to enhance an act of intercourse.
However, 'kinky sex' isn't the only way in which fetish activities are practised within the fetish community. Those events you've heard of where dozens of people in fetish gear meet up in a room and do things to each other really do exist – but they're not always orgies. At many organised events actual penetrative sex is banned and many of the attendees don't leave with each other to do that afterwards. Casual sex is fairly available within the mainstream world – when the BDSM community meet up they are primarily interested in playing different games.
This seems worth mentioning due to the ceaseless way in which BDSM play is used as a supporting act for Mr. Grey's penis. While the wider world will probably regard kink and sex as inextricably linked, if you venture into the fetish community you shouldn't regard sleeping with people as a necessary 'price of admission' you must pay to have things done to you. Far more importantly, if you are on the other end of the whip you shouldn't just assume sexual consent from those who are up for receiving play from you. Nor does attending an event mean that they are up for receiving such play – it's explicit consent all the way here.

Most people are aware that Bondage can be practised separately from other activities. In bed, many who find the idea of S&M or domination far too extreme can appreciate the advantages of being held immobile and powerless to resist while their partner goes to work on them. For many kinky people, however, the very act of binding or being bound can be mentally stimulating enough to be worth doing on its own as play or even as art. Japan has a tradition of treating erotic rope bondage as an art form (under the name of Kinbaku or Shibari) and the western adoption of these practices has created an interesting fusion of styles.

Domination/submission and S&M are more closely entangled within popular culture. The stereotypical 'scene' incorporates a dominant person performing S&M upon a submissive one. 50 Shades again doesn't help here – Grey refuses the term 'sadist' in favour of 'Dominant' when it is obvious that he is actually both.
In fact, such a dynamic is not needed to perform S&M. Many people do it in a co-equal environment. Sometimes the masochist adopts a dominant role in proceedings, precisely dictating what is done to them for their own enjoyment. The BDSM community often uses the words 'top' and 'bottom' to describe the acting and acted upon without the implications of the terms 'Dom' and 'sub'.

Domination/submission is also capable of being practised in isolation. Having one person 'take charge' in bed is an example of this – and traditional relationships where the husband carries overall authority over the couple's choices are technically D/s in nature. Couples who consciously adopt a D/s dynamic (sometimes complete with collars and titles) often have an interest in the other parts of BDSM. However, it must be understood that those who live this way as a lifestyle (rather than just assuming the roles for a 'scene' of play) do not do this to create excuses for S&M play. A sadist running a D/s relationship solely to justify lots of 'punishments' is not going to be a good Dom. This is quite a complicated matter, so I'll discuss it in more detail.

Play vs. punishment vs. abuse.

S&M play is normally based around the giving and receiving of pain for mutual pleasure and intimacy. It is not necessary for the people involved to assume any particular role, much less for the entire relationship to embody such roles. That being said, some people do use role-playing to enhance the experience.
One common element of this role-playing is the concept of punishment. Enjoying the pain of S&M is dependant on being in the right psychological place when it is delivered and many masochists find that the idea of being punished gets them there very fast. However, the offence in question should NOT be a real one. S&M is no way to work out genuine dissatisfactions, concerns or arguments within a couple and bringing in such baggage is not good. The actual motive for the punishment (if it is even discussed) will likely be vague and spurious or something that only the character you are role-playing is guilty of.

Many Dominant/submissive relationships incorporate provisions for the Dominant to punish the submissive (whilst many others do not). In this case, the punishment is a response to a breach of expected behaviour on the part of the sub.
Some subs deliberately vex their Doms into punishing them for mutual S&M gratification. These subs are known as 'brats' and their relationships are recognised as unusual. For a 'normal' D/s relationship, the goal is for the Dom to actually rule the sub effectively – with punishment being and undesirable consequence when the relationship's terms are breached. S&M play might also occur as a separate thing - who needs an excuse to have fun, after all?
Even when the physical mechanics of punishment are the same as those of play, the former is generally reported to not be enjoyable because it occurs in such a different head-space. Conversely, a punishment might be nothing like S&M. As you can see, a Dom who seeks excuses to punish the sub for his S&M pleasure is likely to make the D/s part of the relationship dysfunctional.

The notion of a Dom deliberately discomforting their partner when their control is defied sounds pretty abusive at first glance. The thing to realise is that all the unique elements of a D/s relationship should be consensual things that both partners find preferable to the alternatives – including the existence of punishment.
All relationships are built upon agreed rules – whether the informal social expectations of boyfriend/girlfriend status or the legally registered vows of marriage. People in D/s relationships add extra, unique terms to their agreement (usually without writing up a contract, though some do). This is a genuine part of the relationship structure like any other – I read a piece by one sub saying that 'stepping outside' the D/s dynamic for a particular purpose wasn't something she could do any more than a couple could 'step outside' of their marriage to do something.
Some subs value punishment because they find themselves unable to live the life they want without that motivation not to fail. Others find the set, measured consequences vital for leaving behind mistakes and failures that they otherwise fret over excessively. Some consider punishment a treasured sign that their Dom values them enough to watch and guide their progress. Others simply find that consistent punishment gives concrete reality to the rules of their relationship and their own decision to submit. All would far rather be punished than successfully conceal an offence or be 'let off'. If a sub sees no benefit to punishment, their relationship probably won't include provision for it and they will see Doms who require it as incompatible.

None of this is evident at all in Fifty Shades of Grey. The way Christian tells it, punishing Ana is all part of what he needs/enjoys about being a Dom. In effect, punishment forms a second thread of S&M fun for him – with Ana's disobedience to the agreed rules replacing a proper discussion of consent and waiving her ability to say no if she wants the relationship to continue.
Unsurprisingly, Ana feels physically unsafe under these unacceptable circumstances. She attempts to avoid punishment first by concealing things from him and then by actually having sex with him as a distraction. This is NOT a healthy situation. Her seductive diversion actually works because Grey has no interest in being consistent or affirming in his punishments – he uses them to gratify his own feelings of anger and has no interest in delivering an 'earned' punishment if he isn't too angry to think clearly. You only have to look at the motives above to see how well a sub that actually wanted a punishment dynamic would take that.
This is not to say that Christian has no interest in properly training Ana. However, his goals are based not on who she wants to be (like in a healthy, mutually desired D/s situation) but rather on who he wants her to be. Although he has a genuine interest in getting her to take better care of herself (in a cloying, patriarchal kinda way) his main goals are that she ceases to argue with him under any circumstances and desists from going places and seeing people without his knowledge and approval. In other words he is exhibiting the number one habit of the bad Dom – using the differing roles solely to get more (in terms of time and attention) in exchange for giving less (in terms of compromise and enduring the hard parts of a romantic relationship). A good Dom instead focuses on meeting the great responsibilities that come with all that power and trust – because they aren't doing the D/s thing purely as a means of enabling their own selfishness.

The punishment aspect of the Grey/Steele relationship is actually abuse. This is not a rejection of the entire alternative lifestyle D/s represents, but simply an accurate assessment of their own case. If you want S&M and/or a punishment dynamic in your own life, there is nothing about Fifty Shades that can wisely be used as an instruction manual.

Informed consent requires being informed.

A lot of the time, sexual consent in the vanilla world is a fairly generalised thing. This is because the people involved know what to expect from the idea of regular sex – though a person's first time is generally taken a bit more carefully. By contrast, more unusual things like anal sex are usually explicitly discussed in advance rather than just taken as part of the package.
In BDSM, basically everything is 'unusual'. This means that basically everything needs to be explicitly talked about. Even if the implements involved are commonly agreed in advance, the way in which they are used can be subject to a lot of variation. As respected author Jay Wiseman puts it “when two people are alone together, and one of them is naked and tied up, and the other is standing over them with their hands full of torture implements, this is not the time to have a serious mismatch of expectations”.

As well as discussing things with your partner, you should research into any safety hazards that your plans might involve. Most of these risks are low probability (meaning that people get away with unsafe behaviour most of the time) but knowing them and acting sensibly reduces the risk a lot more. It also allows you to prepare for a highly unlikely but possibly life-threatening situation ahead of time. Grey seems to know enough to keep a cutting tool handy so he can free Ana from bondage immediately in the event of a medical emergency, house fire or the like. Given his punctuality and staff of minions, it is likely that Ana would eventually be rescued if Grey himself had a heart attack. Unfortunately he hasn't learned not to use cable ties, which are so unsuitable they can cause nerve damage.

Of course, a person's consent regarding something they've never done before is still based on their guesses of what it will be like. Most people are aware of the 'safeword' mechanism, whereby a person can demand that the scene stops immediately by uttering a particular agreed word. What tends to get over-looked is that a scene with so much momentum that it can only be stopped by a special pre-arranged code is really psychologically intense. Under most circumstances, the top should be monitoring the bottom's emotional state well enough to know if they need to stop. Grey seems to feel that giving Ana a safeword absolves him of all responsibility as she should just learn to communicate, but this isn't an appropriate attitude.
Even when a scene goes really well, a top should generally provide emotional support and reassurance as the bottom 'comes down' from the intense experience. If you're in a relationship with them (or do something really extreme during a more casual hook up) it's often good to check in with them again later when the whole thing has had the chance to 'sink in'. Grey's contact with Ana the day after her first spanking would almost qualify as this kind of aftercare – if he didn't blame her for expressing uncertainties and tell her that she has to quash them if she's going to be a 'real' sub. Generally speaking, he totally sucks at this kind of thing.

Then there's the time that Christian pins Ana down when she tries to push him off, threatens to gag her if she cries out and has sex with her against her clearly stated wishes. What this means should be obvious and it isn't even out of character for him. The entire book is saturated with examples of him invading her boundaries without permission or obtaining 'consent' with the aid of threats or alcohol. Grey's behaviour throughout the book is not a model of the true dominant – it's a model of a stalking abusive rapist. If I'm going to write about the ways in which 50 Shades is inadequate as a guide to good BDSM practice, it's probably worth mentioning that honouring the very basics of proper consent are the foundation from which all else follows.
I understand why Fifty Shades is written in the way that it is. Removing a female character's agency before fulfilling her (or rather your) darkest dreams has been an effective method of popularising taboo fantasies for centuries. If Ana wasn't a virginal good girl who gets pressed into this stuff, she'd be a far less socially acceptable surrogate for the mainstream female reader. I'll refrain from providing a full examination of all the ways in which that is a bit screwed up.

What I will say is that there honestly are a huge number of really kinky and dominant people out there who are also really nice and considerate. If you want to find someone who will fulfil your Fifty Shades fantasies, don't go looking for an obsessive stalker and emotional manipulator who regularly breaks their own rules, forbids you to talk to anyone about the relationship and generally raises enough red flags to bring a tear to Lenin's eye. If you find one, get out. Unlike Ana, you probably won't be in a situation where they are the only person you've ever wanted to have sex with – and they won't be the only person who will do BDSM with you either.

Have fun!

BDSM is about people doing what they want to do because it makes them happy and fulfilled. Although some find powerful psychological benefits and deep relationships can be formed within its dynamics, kink isn't really founded upon anything more complex than this.
As such, what you do should be what you want to do. If you are doing something only because an experienced kinkster, a book, a film or an internet article has said that it is the 'right' way to do things then something is wrong. New submissives are particularly vulnerable to this because they want someone to dictate to them – yet those in successful relationships have usually taken a strong role in defining the terms of that relationship.

That being said, some things are non-negotiable for anyone involved in this field. You must be scrupulous about consent. You must conduct your real human relationships in a non-abusive fashion. You must learn about the potential mental and physical dangers of the activities you want to do and act in a way that minimises and watches for these risks.

Christian Grey does a really bad job in these three fields. As such, he is no kind of role model or teacher whatsoever. If you try to do this stuff for real, neither of you are going to benefit from using him as one. Thanks for listening.