Analysis · Podcast

Looking at: How fantastical identities help our culture approach real ones

Following up on a previous article on the works of the McElroy brothers I’m today writing about another of their podcasts, The Adventure Zone. If you are intrigued you can find the series here, I would strongly advise listening from the beginning; maybe then this whole piece might sound a little less like garbage.

To summarise, The Adventure Zone is a live play, Dungeon and Dragons, collaborative storytelling, comedy podcast. What started as a jaunt through The Lost Mines of Phandelver, a pre-made dungeon included in the 5th Edition player’s handbook, as a special one-off episode for sister podcast My Brother, My Brother, and Me, has expanded into an epic quest. One with a large, diverse, cast; well defined and meaningful stakes; and a rock solid grasp of tone that manages to define the shape of the text.

It’s, like, a huge achievement. I should imagine there’ll be people out there who’ve been inspired to start creating their own stories as a result of this. I know I have been.

After sixty episodes the story seems to be nearing its end. Although quite what that means in terms of episodes left is ambiguous, everything is feeling climatic. In the most recent episode we finally met a long teased character, Lup, the twin sister of Taako (one of our leads, played by Justin McElroy.) When setting the scene, Griffin, the dungeon master/storyteller, provided the character’s background, fleshing out with Justin the relationship between this and a rough overview of their childhood. He shared the information that Lup had been assigned male at birth, but was now living as a woman, making her the show’s first (openly) trans character.

It’s so hype. For a moment, just to see a trans character respected and centralised in a plot that doesn’t deliberately cast them as the other, or undermine their identity, or focus on just how darn hard it is for everyone. This, in a story created by four cishet dudes; in a comedy in which one of the main characters is named after Mexican food. But then the McElroy’s story over the six years they’ve been releasing their work has been one of growing progressivism. And hell, of course good representation ain’t gonna be coming from TV or films at the moment. I’d recommend checking out this article by Laura Dale for a complete breakdown of everything they get right.

Course, it’s not just them creating diverse casts on online media. Sci-fi, soap opera, webcomic Questionable Content has had a trans woman character, Claire, as a cast member since 2012. Ghost-hunting, action-comedy webcomic Paranatural recently explained in the text that recurring character RJ is agender, although their identity and pronouns had been listed on the cast page for a while now.

Of course, all being created by cis men, none of these could have nailed their representations without consultation from the trans community, and all, to their credit, did. Interestingly, we can see in all of these works how their creators approached and experimented with themes of identity before attempting to create these characters.

The fantastic is a useful tool in this regard, we all understand that the X-Men, mutants in the Marvel universe were originally interpreted as a commentary on the racism and civil rights period of the sixties and, in more recent times, has been read as an allegory for the struggles of LGBT peoples in America. Now, we get that this ain’t a perfect state of things; approaching the struggles of minority groups as allegory so often leads to the appropriation of the language of that subjugation. It becomes too easy for an audience to ignore the ignominy being commented upon if the metaphors are never literalised.

For an example, check the recent Fantastic Beasts joint, which seeks to comment upon the racism and homophobia of 1920s America. Possibly it comes across better in the screenplay but, through its clumsy approach to race and sexuality exhibited in the film, it feels like it’s cynically adopting a surface level reading of these issues in order to benefit itself, rather than a minority audience. To paraphrase what the amazing Marcelle and Hannah of podcast Witch Please said in their review of the film, ‘It ain’t good to make a film about racism if all the main characters are white.’

Now, there is a benefit to using fantastical allegory in your writing, unless you manage to be completely tone deaf, it’s hard to cook up anything properly offensive. Now, this may be the minimum of what we expect from those creating our culture, but from their point of view it’s safer, especially if they’re venturing into new territory. Sure, if you’re to stop and stay in that comfortable territory it’s shitty, but it can be a useful mode to move through on the road to true inclusiveness.

To this end Imma talk about Roswell, a character in the show’s sixth season (or arc) The Eleventh Hour. So, in the thirteen episode series the characters arrive in this very Wild West feeling border town, for mysterious reasons the entire town is trapped in a time loop that forces them to live the same hour over and over again, only our leads are aware of this happening. To compound this, the sheriff and several important figures have all gone missing, our leads need to figure out what’s going on, and hopefully right whatever went wrong with time.

Upon entering the town they encounter Roswell, the Sheriff’s deputy, currently the highest authority available. Roswell is a magical creation, a golem, the D&D creature being very similar to the one of Jewish legend. An enormous figure of clay contained within a suit of armour, on the shoulder perches a small bird, one which shares the consciousness of the golem and speaks for it. They, together, are Roswell.

You see then, it’s a neat way of exploring identity which, thanks to the element of the fantastic, is unmoored from the specifics of gender. Roswell, by the way, goes by gender neutral they/them pronouns and echoing the later treatment of Lup is just allowed permission to exist within this world. Which may not seem too much of a big deal but non-cisgender people are so rarely afforded the opportunity to just live in worlds, it is important.

There is one moment when the character comes to a point of actually making a defining statement. Due to the collaborative nature of the form it comes in a conversation, they’ve gained Roswell’s trust and Magnus (played by Travis McElroy) asks if Roswell is the bird or the golem. Roswell is confused, they say they don’t understand the question. It’s reiterated, ‘Which is you?’

‘I don’t really see that there’s any distinction.’ comes the reply. It’s not an accidental move. As an audience member I recognised something truthful in that, something that rang true to my relationship with the gender-binary. And sure, okay, it happened because a straight cisgender dude created a space that was safe enough for him to play around with the concept in, but equally that safe place also served to protect vulnerable communities from possible damage if his own ignorance screwed up the representation.

I don’t mean for this to sound like a defence of giving cis dudes credit for putting in the least possible effort. I mean, Questionable Content eventually added a trans character after exploring the notion of identity through the artificial intelligence characters that had been taking greater prominence in the plot at the time. I guess what I enjoy about following these works is seeing their authors grow in confidence in representing those society traditionally views as the other.

Sure, that means nothing unless they reach the logical endpoint, unproblematic representation, but as people grow I find interest in their experimentation. Roswell exists as a construct to produce a physicalized representation of a non-binary identity, but the underlying message is that these figures must be set aside from the human. By then creating a human character who shares the same issues we disrupt that message, there is no longer a fantasy that must be set apart from reality, there is only psychology. If Roswell was deemed deserving of having their identity respected, why shouldn’t Lup?

So thanks McElroys, Jeph Jacques and Zack Morrison, you done good. You got help when you needed it, and pushed yourself until you got to that point. There’s a quiet utopianism in your works as a result, in order to better our world, you’ve created better worlds. Told better stories too.

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