c.e. taillefer

February 20, 2013

Sorry Not Sorry 1: I read Homestuck

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Sorry Not Sorry is a new series of blogs, dedicated to media I enjoy: video games, movies, books, etc.  I intend for Sorry Not Sorry to open up a dialogue about the line between being a feminist and doing feminist things.  The former doesn’t make everything you do automatically feminist (apologies to Lisa Simpson). The urge to close the gap between the two things is natural, I think, and ties in closely with feminists who feel the momentum of the movement flagging, attempting to flog life into it by expanding the definition of feminism so widely that it’s catching stray insects and the occasional neoliberal in its mouth these days.  It has undermined the concept of subversion to the point of ridicule, where certain online circles take things like leg shaving or nail painting or high heels as a subversion of femme expectations, because they’re feminist and they’re not doing it because they have to!  The average man on the street isn’t going to know that though, nor even are people you might hail as fellow feminists.  It doesn’t mean you can’t do those things. It’s okay to be a feminist and enjoy watching Game of Thrones.  You can be a feminist and read the Dresden files.  It’s just that it doesn’t make those things feminist. Dig me?

So I open Sorry Not Sorry with Homestuck.

Homestuck…how do I begin to explain Homestuck? Homestuck is flawless. I hear Hussie insured his Kickstarter game for a million dollars. I hear Homestuck met Dante Basco on Tumblr. One time, Andrew Hussie stole Ryan North’s credit card – it was awesome.

Homestuck is a webcomic/flash series by Andrew Hussie that is (ostensibly) about a quartet of internet buddies who want to start playing an online game together.  Only this online game is related to the destruction of at least two universes, gets them tangled up with a bunch of literal internet trolls, and lots of things happen?  It clocks out, as of this writing, at 5800 pages long, so take notes epic fantasy writers, and once you finish reading it, you better head to the MSPA wiki to figure out what the hell you just read, so there’s another 800 pages for you to enjoy. It has at least a dozen soundtracks (and they’re all excellent.)  Some of the flash animations for the comic were so eagerly anticipated, not only did it crash MSPA’s servers, it also gave Newsgrounds’ servers a run for their money when they hosted it for MSPA.

There’s literally no way to tell if you’ll be able to read, let alone enjoy Homestuck.  A lot of people poop out a few pages in, and still more a few dozen or a few hundred later.  It took me a Christmas break to really get into it after my first attempt failed, but I really wanted to like it because as a kid I enjoyed a lot of text-based, crummy graphic video games, like Maniac Mansion (which also set me straight on how life was going to be as an adult):

maniac mansion

Jeez, who let impressionable kids place this thing?

For some people, the gags about clunky inventories models and poorly animated arms are going to be the draw, but while this style continues throughout the whole of the series more or less, the story becomes about a lot less than video games. Some people can get into the comic starting a little later on, when there’s more action – people seem to recommend Act 3 or Act 4.  I don’t believe people should waste time reading shit they’re not interested in, so if you don’t dig Homestuck at first, don’t let it bother you. The internet is going to do just fine at that, anyway.

Hussie does a lot of things right with Homestuck. He plays on our nostalgia with the format.  He has a lot of female characters – it’s impossible to say for sure without an exact count, but I unlike most fantasy-type media, Homestuck is looking at a 50/50 split of male and female characters.  This makes the handful of Strong Female Characters seem less like a trope, and more like a characteristic, because you also have fancy wizard ladies who like knitting, or a soft-spoken daydreaming kind of girl who’s an expert shot with firearms and a master scientist. This kind of question comes up a lot in writer’s circles: How do I make character So and So not seem like a stereotype? Well, for one, don’t have her be the singular and obvious representation of Woman in your work.

homestuck lady trolls

There are canon queer relationships in the comic, much to the wailing and gnashing of teeth of angry fanboys.  All Homestuck trolls are canonically bisexual, due to either their weird romance grids, or their weird troll anatomy, or possibly just because, although at least one is only interested in women so far as we’ve seen. Not to mention, if you’re a fandom kind of person, the huge cast of female characters gives fanfic writers and fan artists plenty to work with. It’s not just trolls, either! We have a couple of human characters also interested in same-sex relationships.  The bulk of the cast for the first five acts are ~13 years old, so most ‘romance’ pairings are pretty much just spoken of rather than shown (This is a Good Thing), but also Hussie nails the awkward, are we dating? what is even dating? I don’t know, I’m only 13, you tell me feeling that being a babby teen was all about.

Next good point – granted, he has had over 5000 pages to hone his craft, but the characterization in Homestuck is some of the best I’ve seen, especially since you only have chat logs to rely on for most of the storytelling.  His teenagers sound authentically teenagery, they can all be kind of douchey, they deal with massive, apocalyptic problems but also still struggle with being meat sacks flooded with gross hormones for the first time, too.  In a similar vein, aside from maybe Mira Grant, Hussie’s one of the only people who can make me read a bunch of internet story bullshit and I’ll still enjoy it.  The story telling methods may not be for you, and that’s fine, but when the story gets going, it becomes really easy to identify with nearly all of the characters in some bizarre way or another – you both have a dead parent, you both like cats, you are both forced to serve an eldritch abomination the blood of your people, that kind of thing.

The bad: Hussie was a shitty asshole who thought drawing racist comics were funny (tw: for racism, sexism, etc at link) before his mspaintadventures really took off, and who knows, maybe still finds it funny today and just hides it better.  He is still pretty bad about ableism within Homestuck – while there are a number of disabled characters, they all ended up that way through weird, petty revenge games, and aside from the guy in the wheelchair who is legitimately hindered by his disability, the others have or came up with magical workarounds so being blind isn’t such a big deal. This kind of critique is a common one when disability, especially physical, is handled in fantasy fiction – it’s hard writing the real experiences and difficulties people with disabilities have, so they can “see” using their super hearing! Or they can walk on magical islands! But it’s still a shitty thing to do, and this can be a deal-breaker for some people.

There are still problems with racism within the comic, and the fandom.  All of the trolls have greyish skin, all the humans have paper-white skin.  This is a stylistic choice, but people also point out that without saying one way or another – ie: arguing that Homestuck is a colour-blind world – a lot of people are just gonna go “Oh, they’re white then?” because that’s what people do. White-as-default is what happens when you don’t explicitly spell things out – shit, it’s what happens sometimes, even when you DO spell things out.  Lastly, a recent plotline had a crop of humans given a peachy skin tone, complete with the original panel using a pantone joke. Hussie got rightfully trounced for being an idiotic asshole after all his insistence that the Homestuck kids are aracial, and issued an apology, as well as changing the joke. (Lots of shitty language at the link.)

Plus the usual language shit we all deal with: the characters use the word bitch, etc. It’s shit, and it’s unclear from the text whether we’re supposed to think them stupid for thinking that or not. To be honest, I am not sure how I feel about bitch as a sexist slur used in Homestuck, given that I also read ASOIAF and Stephen King, two authors who use EXTREMELY offensive sexist and racial slurs to make their villains extra-villainous, and I think I’d rather read a 13-year old saying bitch in an ambiguous manner than every character in ASOIAF saying c*nt. (If we’re lucky, maybe GRRM will discover a new word or two and we can read those instead!)

Finally, this isn’t a fault necessarily of Homestuck itself, but of the internet and things in general, but the fandom is kind of icky and gross.  All the main characters are underage in Homestuck canon, except a handful of adults, so if you’re looking for art or fanfic and it’s clear the author hasn’t aged the characters up for the kinds of activities the kids are doing, it is fucking messed up and you will yell a lot.  Cosplayers do gross and weird things like spit in buckets in public places. As evidenced by Hussie’s apology above, a lot of them get volcanically furious over perceived censorship issues, even when it’s the right thing to do. As with all things, being a woman in a geek-oriented space is likely to get you a lot of shit – not Homestuck, but see the backlash against a My Little Pony fan artist over her campaign against ableism in MLP.

Like all things, you’re gonna have to weight the pros and cons, and decide for yourself if this thing is for you.  For me, personally, I’ll keep up with the Homestuck story until it ends (apparently Soon, but it seems Hussie takes the same kind of tack over soon that Blizzard does), I’ll continue to get any interesting fan art from people braver than I checking out tumblr, and yeah, I’ll acknowledge that as a stand-alone work, and within the creator’s history, there are a lot of problems with Homestuck.  I want to hear them, I want to keep talking about them. It’s important, and it’s extra important to know we have allies that don’t agree with everything in the comic, ever. It makes speaking out against the awful stuff a little easier when we can do it together.

Sorry (not sorry) I read Homestuck.

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