The Fan Meta Reader

“On Sylvie, and the Many Issues of Fandom and WOC Romance,” by threefeettotheleft

[Spoilers for Musketeers series 3]

Here’s the thing, before I begin: none of this is about [Your Ship][Your Shipand the way you play with it, is merely a component piece of a much larger system. The reason I’m not naming a ship here is because I don’t mean you, Musketeers fandom, I mean fandoms across the board because there are some universal issues that really, really need to be addressed. Effectively, what’s going on here is nothing more than a singular case study from a much much more prolific issue than maybe fandoms really want to admit.

You’re not racist because of who you ship. But wilfully ignoring – or belligerently denying – the implications when people start talking about shipping trends or the treatment of characters of colour? That… really kind of is.

That might sound harsh. But I’m not taking it back. The fact is, the world is not colourblind, no matter how many of you try to say that it is. So you don’t notice race (consciously, by the way. because you definitely do). I do. I’m a non-white woman. I notice my race every single day, and often because other people notice it first. So you can rest assured I notice it when it comes to the media I consume.

I’ve been in fandom a very long time. And time and time again, I’ve seen the same things happen over and over, the same words said, the same tropes used. Most recently, I’ve been finding these patterns in the canon and fandom of The Walking Dead in The 100, and – which prompted this post – The Musketeers. Before I get further, I’m going to state this upfront: this post is only about the treatment of WOC [“women of color” – ed.] and largely uses heterocentric canon as its focus. There is MUCH more to be said about the treatment of all kinds of marginalised identities and the intersection thereof, which I have not gone into here.

So, here are a few specific patterns I’ve seen play out wrt women of colour many, many times.

Story tropes:

  • [WOC] loves [LOVE INTEREST] so much that they will stand by as s/he gets with [NON-WOC LOVE INTEREST].
  • Addition to above: [WOC] actively insists on helping [LOVE INTEREST] get with [NON-WOC LOVE INTEREST]  because they’re so nice. Or the [NON-WOC LOVE INTEREST] is just that brilliant a person.
  • [WOC] who is fulfilling a particular role in the narrative conveniently dies or disappears so that [NON-WOC] is able to turn up to fulfill same role entirely possibly at the point that a romance arc is due to take place.
  • Whether previously a significant part of the narrative or not, [WOC] is killed off to further the arc of a white character.

Fannish reactions:

  • [WOC] is too good to end up in a relationship, they don’t need anyone!
  • [WOC] *becomes romantically involved* UGH this romance narrative is so stereotypical.
  • [WOC] has no chemistry with [LOVE INTEREST]
  • They just didn’t build up [WOC] enough to become a viable partner for this character.
  • If [WOC] was a white woman, I’d still dislike her/you only like [WOC] because she isn’t white.

Stop me if you’ve heard any of those before. It’s not particularly that any of those individual items are a problem (except… the fridging. there is never good reason to fridge a character). The problem is the word I keep using: pattern. It’s no coincidence that these narratives come up time and again when it comes to women of colour, and, fandom, that is the context which has to be borne in mind when discussing and dismissing a female character of colour.

tumblr_inline_o6xk71yjMy1r8apzu_500

Sylvie, The Musketeers

In Series 3 of The Musketeers – a show I have previously talked about the race issues in, and in fact had to stop watching on a week by week basis in series two because I felt it handled race and gender so poorly, the first recurring woman of colour joins the cast. She is one of two black women who have significant roles – and by this I mean “are around for a good chunk of an episode episode and have lines” – and of three women of colour total, given Meera Syal joined the cast for an episode. Three. In thirty episodes and for the record, there are no non-white women in the first series at all. Main cast notwithstanding, non-white men don’t exactly fare better. There are a few more of in numbers, but mostly they are killed off. If anyone wants to help me revisit my stats post for series 2 and 3, I’d be most grateful, because it is, frankly, appalling.. What’s significant about Sylvie, though, is that she, like Milady and Anne before her, actually becomes a recurring character and a prominent part of the narrative.

I think Sylvie’s fantastic. She’s determined, she’s intelligent, she’s brave, she’s honest, she’s sexy, and she’s compassionate. Her first instinct on meeting Grimaud was to welcome him, she works tirelessly to bring education and welfare to the poor, to the refugee camp where she lives, and refuses to back down when threatened. When she meets Athos, after initial suspicion, once he proves to her that he can be trusted, she not only decides to pursue him romantically, but also in doing so, tries to explore and understand who he is and where he comes from. Their conflict doesn’t come from any kind of idea that they are of two separate worlds, it comes when both he and she realise that he’s not at that time willing to do the same thing for her. I found it very telling that when Athos rescues Sylvie from being flogged, he doesn’t, ultimately, base the argument on her morality, his love, or anything to do with the two of them, he finally cries out in front of everyone To hell with the law. For the resolutely lawful Athos, it is a deliberate and marked progression from his avowal that he doesn’t want to see where she’s coming from when she talks about injustice. It was his personal feelings that caused the rejection, to be sure, but it was a rejection nonetheless. Athos and Sylvie’s relationship builds and grows on the way they come to value one another in their whole identity.  From flirtation, to respect, to understanding, to love, I found it an incredibly fulfilling thing to watch grow, even through their rough patches.

The reaction from fandom though, has been rather more disappointing. I’m not talking about the people upset their ship was sunk – and there’s a lot to be spoken about wrt Milady’s arc this season – that’s understandable. What’s disappointing, albeit entirely predictable, is the form that disappointment has taken. I’ve seen fics in which Sylvie is killed off and posts and comments which support this, numerous tagged posts decrying how she and Athos shouldn’t be together (some before the show has been aired or viewed), people wishing she’d never existed in the first place. And when it has been pointed out that this kind of behaviour is pretty damn gross, there’s been a defensiveness and an utter refusal to engage with the reason why people are, justifiably, angry that this pattern of poor treatment of a woman of colour has repeated itself in yet another fandom.

WOC bingo one: Sylvie has no chemistry with Athos.

Chemistry arguments are very difficult to talk about, because they’re so subjective. But as far as I saw, Thalissa Teixeira had a wonderful chemistry with Tom Burke and the rest of the cast, which is no easy feat for an actress coming into a show in which the leads have been together for a number of years.

WOC – particularly black women and that is a very important thing to note – often have this charge levelled at them in romance narratives. See also: Iris and Barry in The Flash. Guinevere and Arthur in Merlin, Uhura and Spock in Star TrekAnd its hard to not mention here that the inverse is true – James and Kara on Supergirl, Finn and Rey from Star Wars. It pretty much doesn’t matter what they show onscreen, this will always come up. Guaranteed.

WOC bingo two: I liked Sylvie, but the character shouldn’t have been in a romance. She’s too good for that.

Despite JohnLock being a massive pairing in fandom, the moment Elementaryintroduced a female Watson, and an East Asian female Watson at that, suddenly, in between the cries of homophobia (because nothing says equality like BBC queerbaiting. Cheap shot? Yes. Wrong? No.), there was a huge call for Watson to not become involved with Sherlock. And on Sleepy Hollow, for Abbie not to become involved with Ichabod. After shows like Bones or The X Files and the fandom those generated, the so-called feminism of this independent non-romanceable woman can feel something like running with that arsehole friend of yours with the long legs, who waits for you to catch up just to start loping off again before you’ve had a chance to catch your breath.

At no point did Sylvie sacrifice her values to the relationship. From the publishing of her protest pamphlets, to her relationship with Aramis, to her running of underground meetings, to the scenes with Constance helping her with a new space for her work, she had plenty to do that was not revolving around Athos. When she comes to the garrison after they part ways, she does it because it’s the right thing to do and knows she can trust the Musketeers, whatever her personal situation. She IS strong, the fact that she falls in love with Athos and he with her does not diminish that.

Do you know how rare it is to see WOC on screen being loved and cherished? Especially, for that matter, being loved and cherished without then being forced to stand back and watch the person they’re in a relationship move on in favour of a white woman. Or worse, WOC being asked to be an active participant in their own being thrown aside and if they feel badly about it, being vilified in canon and out, in fandom. See: Raven, Clarke and Finn in The 100. Martha, Rose and The Doctor in Doctor Who.

Sylvie appearing as endgame, being depicted as a viable romantic partner for both Aramis and Athos is important. Giving her romantic scenes with Athos is important. It’s not like, either, that Athos has never canonically shown any interest in other women. The last time I saw this endgame so clearly marked in canon is Arthur/Gwen in Merlin, and even there, the Arthur/Gwen relationship was often sacrificed in show and out to build up Arthur/Merlin. Of four main characters, Arthur, Guinevere, Merlin and Morgana, the character most routinely left out of promos? That was Guinevere. Guinevere, from the Arthur legend. Sylvie is for once, a black woman who gets her happy ending and it is beautiful.

WOC bingo three: I’d still dislike Sylvie if she were white/I didn’t like [X] white character, does that make me racist against white people?/You only like her because she’s not white.

1. Maybe. But statistically unlikely. White women get prioritised in tonnes of ways over WOC in fannish circles. Sylvie is exactly the character fandom has been calling for for the past few years, and yet suddenly she’s not good enough? How hard does a WOC have to work before she’s accepted by fandom? Don’t answer. That was rhetorical and said with a very heavy sigh.

2. No. But, it possibly means you should examine whether or not you would have let a male character off the hook for whatever it is the female character did. When we’re talking about WOC, the point is, we’re not talking just about racism. Misogyny very much has its own part to play.

3. No. But maybe given all of the above, I am predisposed to stan for a character who, as I have seen time and again, will undoubtedly not have anywhere near as many people rising to her defence.

Point of all of this is, it’s not a particular character, not a a particular ship. You can like who you like and dislike the same. But there is a repeating pattern and pointing this out is not “causing drama”, is acknowledging a serious problem. The reaction to Sylvie is just one example and to treat it like a personal, singular attack is to miss the point entirely. As uncomfortable as that might be to accept, there is no chance that we’re going to move forward, to do better like we’re always claiming we want to, unless we allow ourselves to listen, to understand and to examine the media we look to, our own internal reactions to it and the way in which we express those reactions in fannish spaces.

Do better.

Required Reading

Dear white Hollywood: here are three things you need to hear about your defensiveness on race (salon.com)

i am done choosing between my womanhood and my blackness (thehbwproject.tumblr.com)

this series of quotes from east asian actors (eastasiansonscreen.tumblr.com)

i’m both tired of and angry with fandom (stitchmediamix.tumblr.com)

fandom and the intersection of feminism and race (diversehighfantasy.tumblr.com)

“colorblindness” – a link roundup

5 comments on ““On Sylvie, and the Many Issues of Fandom and WOC Romance,” by threefeettotheleft

  1. Beatrice Walker
    June 16, 2016

    I really liked this post, for a variety of reasons. I have been very disappointed with the overall reaction to the character of Sylvie and the “coded” reasons for not liking her. I think the actress did a great job, Tom Burke sold the chemistry and the relationship made more sense based on who he was than the previous pairing. I have issues with the way the other relationship was ended for sure. Your comments hit the nail on the head not just for this series, but for many others.

    Like

  2. Teresa Ka
    June 19, 2016

    Thank you for this thorough analysis. I agree with all your points completely. For me Sylvie is such a great character and one of the highlights of the series. Of course, people have different tastes, but in this instance I really cannot imagine fans reacting to the character as negatively if she would have been white. She is pretty much everything you’d want from a female character written for TV today, intelligent, independent, strong. I think how their romance was handled elevated the whole series.

    Like

  3. E
    September 13, 2016

    I don’t even mind Sylvie. I just find her painfully annoying and unneeded. I do adore Milady, though, which may be the problem.

    Like

  4. China
    December 12, 2016

    I loved your analogy of Sylvie & Athos. I must say I loved Milady/Athos’ chemistry but it was deadly to say the least. It was time for Athos to make a change and I don’t think he just chose Sylvie. Athos loved Milady and had this notion that he would be married forever. He wanted a family, children, and to be a good husband. But, Milady was deceptive way more than anyone could have imagined. She was sick and despite all the passion between the two, one or both would have been dead if they had continued. At one point, it appeared Athos gave up on women because he was lead to believe that the relationship he had was the way it was going to be. Even with Ninon, they were drawn together but both liked the trust they needed. But, when Athos & Sylvie met, it was different. As a woman, Sylvie’s father (Hubert) raised her to stand on her own. This is appealing to any man. Also, even though she could stand on her own and make her own decision, she was attracted to Athos and called him on his BS. Plus, when big boy came over to make a booty call, girlfriend realized that this was all there was going to be and decided he’s not worth it even though you can see the pain in her eyes. Nonetheless, he pursued her and the relationship developed. By both of them being strong and willing to listen to the other as to what they wanted, the relationship should go far.

    Like

  5. Rain
    October 5, 2017

    While I do agree that there is a pattern in fandoms that I, quite frankly, don’t understand (considering I like every other characters of color in other media that you listed, and Finn is, in fact, my favorite in the new SW), I still find Sylvie painfully annoying. I can say for sure that it has nothing to do with her race or gender, because I find her annoying for the same reasons I find other, including male and/or white, characters annoying. I just have an instinctive aversion to newbies that suddenly show up in established fandoms all perfect and wonderful and end up becoming the cue factor for the main cast to change (because a) of course they were in the wrong to begin with b) they couldn’t have done it by themselves or with the help of the established characters, oh no). This, and taking on the established cast’s accomplishments, is a trait of a Mary Sue that I simply can’t deal with. I actually ended up abandoning the series because Athos is my favorite character and his arc became all about this new girl that I couldn’t stand.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Information

This entry was posted on May 12, 2016 by and tagged , , , , , .
%d bloggers like this: