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You Big Bully!
or The Dynamics of Fan-Created Power Imbalances
by Rachael Sabotini

Let's look at a recent non-existent Sentinel story:

Simon...wouldn't even look at my observer's pass lying on the desk. Instead, he pulled me in for a hug. "It'll be okay, Sandburg." He quickly let go and squeezed my shoulder, turning a stony gaze at Jim as he left.

Megan was a little more open. I could see the tears in her eyes as she pushed my hair out of my face. "Aw, Sandy ..."

"Hey, no tears, remember?" I hugged her tight. "You promised."

"I'll try." I could see from the way her lip quivered that she was losing the battle. "Take care." Turning quickly, she ran down the corridor. Maybe it's the way the hall echoes, but I thought I could hear when her tears started to fall.

Typically, Jim didn't seem to care. He was looking at me like I'd grown two heads. "Sandburg, what the hell is going on?" he asked in his oh-so-bullheaded way.

What the fuck do you think is going on? I wanted to scream at him. I've gotten tired of being pushed around, slammed up against doors and treated like a sack of dogshit. Simon, Megan, Rafe -- hell, everyone in Major Crimes had seen it before I had; it was only because of their help that I was ready as I was.

I tried to speak slowly, using small words so he wouldn't have to think too much. "I can't take it any more. I'm leaving, Jim." I showed him the restraining order, Simon's gift to me. "And there's nothing you can do."

But as fans, there's gotta be something we can do.

First, I'm gonna start by defining some terms:

  • Apology!fic: Stories wherein a writer takes a canonical confrontation and seeks to resolve the tension by having one character take responsibility for an episode-related event and apologize to the other character.
  • Grovel!fic: Stories wherein a writer seeks to resolve a canonical confrontation by having one character take excessive, sometimes erroneous, responsibility for the conflict and seek reconciliation by conveying this complete acceptance to the other character in extremely self-deprecating, i.e. groveling, ways. Basically, they don't just apologize, they are put through hell and must beg for it first.
  • Leaving!fic: Stories wherein a writer seeks to resolve a canonical confrontation by having one character ditch their current life and leave another character. Sometimes these stories are preludes to grovel!fic.
  • Buddy Show: Series wherein two characters share equal billing: Starsky & Hutch, The Professionals.
  • Hero/Sidekick show: Series wherein the power imbalance between the characters is reflected in the series title: The Sentinel, The Highlander, Blake's 7.


Now, for the purposes of this rant, let's assume there are three types of pairings:

  • equal buddies -- Starsky and Hutch, Bodie and Doyle, Crockett and Tubbs;
  • bosses and subordinates -- Bodie and Cowley, Crockett and Castillo, Kirk and Spock

and most important for us...

  • heroes and sidekicks -- Duncan and Methos, Hercules and Iolaus, Jim and Blair, and even Blake and Avon.

This third type of slash relationship -- those from hero/sidekick shows -- has the most ambiguous set of power dynamics. In the hero/sidekick genre, the sidekick serves as the foil for the main character. It is their job to be kidnapped and placed in danger, to be made vulnerable, so that hero can be concerned for them. Thus, events happen to these passive characters; they are not usually the ones who solve the crime or run the ship. The main character is traditionally the active one; he fights the bad guys and saves the town from destruction; it's part of the job description.

So, when the series starts, the main character is clearly the focus and the sidekick the underling. And in a series such as The Man from Uncle, that type of relationship continued to be enforced, even as the sidekick became more popular. The work environment that they were in required that there be a boss, and Napoleon was always it.

However, if there is no work environment to constrain the relationship, that boss/underling, active/passive character role assignment breaks down as the series progresses. In fact, it is often a requirement that the character *not* be passive; if the hero is physically active, then the sidekick is often intellectually so. One is a doer and one a thinker, often joking and prodding the active character into taking whatever action is required. The power behind the throne, as it were, rather than an underling: smart, clever, and given to staying in the background, thinking his way through events rather than acting on emotional instinct. Thus, over time, the boss/underling dichotomy changes to a more equal partnership, based on the different strengths the characters bring to the relationship. This is especially clear in partnerships where there is no job keeping them together.

Three sets of slash couples immediately spring to mind as examples of this:

  • Duncan/Methos (Highlander -- HL)
  • Blake/Avon (Blake's 7 -- B7)
  • Jim/Blair (The Sentinel -- TS)

(Note: It's harder to work with B7 as a source for discussion, since most of the fanfic is in zines, and the communications among fans is harder to pin down to a particular timeframe. Nevertheless, the power structure is similar to the other two, in that Blake and Avon choose to stay together -- up until the moment when Blake leaves. And it is his shadow that still holds the power over Avon, even when the character Blake is gone.)

Blake and Avon's relationship is probably the closest to boss/employee, but even then, the overall relationship of the larger group is one of equals, and while the team complains about having to do what Blake says, no one ever comes up with an alternate plan.

There is almost a 'separate but equal' division of boss/employee relationships in The Sentinel; if they are involved in police work, or if it’s an action setting, then Jim's in charge; if it's a discovery setting, or if deals with Sentinel powers or mysticism, then it's Blair's domain. Either one could be in charge, depending on the environment they are working in.

Duncan and Methos' relationship is probably the farthest from the boss/employee structure, since hey don't have jobs as such; the universe is set-up to keep them all isolated and alone, rather than keeping them together as in a work-based buddy show. Immortals are loners, for the most part, separated by the phrase 'there can be only one' and the knowledge that eventually one of them may have to kill the other.

While named for the active character, each series relies heavily on the relationships among all the characters, evolving into more of an ensemble piece as time passes, even though the stories are told primarily through the point-of-view of the active character. This is particularly fascinating in B7 as Blake and Avon swap places in the series, with Avon becoming the active character, still obsessed with tracking down an unseen Blake.

Each of these relationships requires the consent of the secondary character for the relationship to continue, which makes the relationship portrayed in canon less one-sided. If they choose to stay, at a point where they could leave, this implies that the relationship is important to them and worth continuing. For example, Avon wasn't a member of the rebellion until the final season. He could have left the ship at any time and gone off on his own, trying to avoid recognition and capture by the Federation. Similarly, Blair could have left Jim at any time, choosing a new thesis and a new research subject. (Or he could have just hurried to finish the dissertation and then moved on, since canonically he had enough data to complete it halfway through the show.) And Methos could have left Duncan simply by not dropping by the loft or the barge, or by not talking to Duncan any more. (In canon, Methos and Duncan have no reason to stay together other than that they are friends.)

Fans eagerly embrace the concept of the partnership on the surface, but in fanfic, the original active and passive roles still persist, and the resentment that sidekick fans feel about *their guy* being the passive character persists as well. So the fanfic portrays an increase of stereotypical masculine and feminine behaviors while the fans cry out against it, and the fanfic-generated relationship mutates from its on-screen form. Instead of equals, held together only by their commitment to one another, they are portrayed as stereotypically husband and wife, with a power imbalance straight out of the dark ages.

The aggressive/dominant characteristics of the husband are exaggerated, turning Duncan, Jim, and Blake into glowering brutes who use and manipulate their wives. Methos, Blair, and Avon's feminine characteristics are also exaggerated, to the extent that they weep and passively accept the outrageous treatment of these cavemen. They accept spanking as just and right discipline, or sadistic treatment as their due; they accept that their position in the household is only temporary, and they are left without any feeling of power, control, or responsibility in their lives. So, when the relationship comes under stress in the show, that fanfic-created stereotype of the passive, feminine victim-wife overwhelms the equality previously created in the aired series canon.

Often the passive character becomes a favorite, and even when the 'underling' is the central instigator of an episode -- as Methos was in Comes a Horseman, or Blair in The Sentinel by Blair Sandburg -- that sense that the character is passive is subtly portrayed in fan fiction. Rather than being portrayed as strong men who have made deliberate and conscious choices, the underlings are denied the power and authority of their own choices and actions. Methos didn't lie and push Duncan into reacting; rather, it's all Duncan's fault for not taking Methos at face value, so Methos couldn't trust him. Blair didn't consciously and thoughtfully choose to give up his Ph.D., because of something more important; rather, Jim's attitude *forced* Blair into that choice. Blake forced Avon to kill him, by not noticing how unstable Avon had become, and pushing when he should not. What is shown as consensual in canon becomes fannishly suspect, earmarked as manipulation and emotional blackmail. That is, the husband is manipulating the wife to get "her" to stay; the relationship is becoming abusive and toxic. And in B7, it ends in death, very bloody death, for Blake and all the supporting characters.

Each of the three couples I mentioned -- Duncan and Methos, Blake and Avon, and Jim and Blair -- deals with the issue of betrayal and what their partnership means at some point during the run of their series. For Duncan and Methos, the betrayal leads to a period of estrangement that isn't resolved until the final episodes. For Blake and Avon, it ends in the probable death of both characters. For Jim and Blair, it ends with the redefinition of what their lives will be like in the future, with the reassessment of priorities and the active abandonment of some once-cherished dreams.

But for many fans, when the betrayal episode is rewatched, the fanfic-created characterizations are jumbled in with the canon of the show, creating fan fiction where the 'stupid, brutish husband' has somehow manipulated, coerced, and controlled the 'clever, victimish wife', ruining his life. Or in other words, the active partner betrayed the passive one, no matter what was actually shown on-screen, because those roles are supported by hundreds of stories written by fans. So, Duncan betrayed Methos, Blake betrayed Avon, and Jim betrayed Blair. In fan fiction, the only acceptable option seems to be that the active partners betray the passive one, otherwise the roles that the fans have developed are somehow invalidated, which is an untenable situation.

Still, no fanfic author wants 'her guy' to just accept such betrayal, particularly when 'her guy' is often the 'wife' in the relationship, and so the need to support and protect the passive character jerks into place. A huge new category of fan fiction joins the usual mix of episode-based and generic first-time stories. These new stories center around getting the active character, the hero, to apologize for his betrayal, or to grovel and plead for the relationship on bended knee, thus redressing the power imbalance that the active/passive roles require. This influx of apology!fic and grovel!fic seems to take over the fandom, consuming all the authors' resources in an attempt to rebalance the perceived power imbalance.

But the passive character remains in the passive role; they do not take action in any way. They allow other characters to comfort them (Joe, Simon, Vila), keeping to themselves and out of the main character's sphere of influence. Or the passive one is tortured, put through hell so that the active one can come to their senses and realize just what they've been missing, and how screwed up they are. When resolution comes in these stories, it is because the active character searches out the passive one and presents their apology or grovels for forgiveness. The passive character is allowed to magnanimously bestow their forgiveness upon a now contrite active character and usually cautions the active character to toe the line. No action is required of the passive character, and only the active character undergoes a change -- a type of atonement, if you will -- for having sinned against the passive character, for having had any sort of issue with how the passive character behaved during the broadcast episode.

A variation on this theme of atonement is to punish the active character by making the passive character 'come to his senses,' perhaps fulfilling the writer's own view of the situation. They can't understand why the wife stays with such a bully, so "she" doesn't. The passive character berates the active character for what they did and then leaves, cutting all ties, no matter how attached that passive character was in the aired series to the life they had created.

At no time are the characters allowed to have equal responsibility for the problems of the relationship; even in the leaving scenario, all that really happens is that the traditionally passive character is turned active for an instant, only to run away. At no time is the passive character actually allowed to act like an adult and deal with the issue himself; rather, other characters run interference for him, supporting him and telling the active partner how horrible he is for having been so unfair. The growth shown in the series is never admitted, so that the stereotype of the inequality of the partnership can be maintained.

And I have to say, the whole thing just pisses me off. <g>

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