Playpen

Welcome to the Playpen, our space for ferrety banter and whimsical snippets of things that aren't quite long enough for articles (although they might be) but that caught your eye anyway.

at 12:31 on 25-08-2013, Bryn
I have little to add, but I'm seconding Robinson that I'm really enjoying your posts Cheriola, the systematised breakdown of how male characters are presented according to traditionally feminine norms in particular! :) [General encouragement to write a top-level article]
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at 02:35 on 25-08-2013, Cheriola
Maybe I should put it in comparison: Neither "Sanctuary" nor "Warehouse 13" are highbrow or particularly 'deep'. Their writers aren't Shakespeare, or Asimov, or Ursula K. Le Guin. Obviously there are a few dud episodes, but I think on the whole, the shows are just as good as RTD's Doctor Who, Buffy, or the better incarnations of Star Trek. They certainly are better than what I've seen of "Torchwood", and better than most of "Highlander" (to name a show with similar long-lived characters and historical flashbacks) - if the latter perhaps mainly because of better effects and better acting. The shows don't have an intricately planned multi-season story arc like "Babylon 5", or hard-to-figure-out mysteries like "The X Files", or completely out-there ideas like "Fringe". But what I mainly want from a 'comfort food' show like this are engaging characters and enjoyable character interactions, and they deliver that in spades.
And don't worry, despite the cancellation, "Sanctuary" didn't end on a cliffhanger but had a last episode that feels like an intended ending; and I expect the writers of "Warehouse 13" will make decent use of their last 6 episodes as well.

Does that help?

Maybe you could list a few shows that you like, so that I could compare? (I watch way too much TV, so as long as it's in the scifi/fantasy/action adventure genre of the last 20 years, I'll probably have watched it.) Though I guess how good a show is will always be subjective in the end.
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at 00:23 on 25-08-2013, Cheriola
Thank you.

Well, I have a hard time analysing shows in terms of good writing. For one, English is not my native language, so I probably have a lot lower standards than a native speaker when it comes to dialogue. For me, it mainly just matters that it's understandable. And secondly, I haven't analysed any media in terms of quality (as opposed to content) since highschool so I don't really know where to begin.

Obviously I like both shows a lot. The characters are likeable and often funny. The writing and the generally good acting make you care about them, which is the most important thing in my eyes. The dialogue seems life-like and snappy to my non-native ears, even if they are a bit too clever and pop-culture-referential sometimes. ("Warehouse 13" more so than "Sanctuary".) Are the episode plots terribly original? I don't think so, but I also didn't notice much that is outright nonsensical or plot-holey. (Unlike, say, Doctor Who. But maybe I just pay more attention to the details with Doctor Who.) Like I said, "Warehouse 13" has a habit of pushing reset buttons. "Sanctuary" very pointedly does not. (Though I respected a lot that the latter writers didn't do the typical "out of sight out of mind" thing that genre shows often do with fallen characters.) Both shows have a lot of monster/artifact of the week episodes at first and only later get into more complex arc storylines.

Both shows have minor issues with retconning some of their mythology/backstory. (Especially "Sanctuary" changed a few things from the original webisodes once they got re-edited for TV, so better don't watch those to begin with.) "Warehouse 13" for example needed about 2 or 3 seasons to just say "It's emotion-based magic, alright?!" and be done with it. Before that, it had never been explained how the artifacts worked, but there had been the pretense that it had vague scifi reasons. Which annoyed me as a scientist, because it made no sense. I'm much happier with the show now that it's embraced the fantasy genre. "Sanctuary" gets a bit silly with their Hollow Earth story arc, but if you accept that a lot of the show pays homage to 19th century scifi literature and this is part of that, it doesn't matter so much anymore that it's impossible according to the current state of scientific knowledge. "Warehouse 13" is fun for history and mythology geeks, too, but more because of the many, many references.

Both shows put their female characters in skintight bodysuits on rare occasions, but there's nothing extremely offensive like Owen's date rape drug in the first episode of "Torchwood". (At least I don't remember anything that made me seriously angry.) Both writing teams utterly suck at writing compelling romance storylines (except by accident, as with H.G./Myka), which is why all love interests quickly disappear again, and family members of the main characters are more important secondary characters. One thing I noticed when watching the sister show to "Warehouse 13", "Eureka" (there are official cross-overs), was that the former rarely or never dumbs down female characters in order to let male ones shine, and doesn't give the impression that scientists/geeks don't know what they're doing and have to be rescued by normal, average guys with common sense. "Eureka" may not be especially sexist or anti-intellectual as far as genre shows go, but going in with expectations that it would be similar to "Warehouse 13" caused me to rage-quit that show after 2 seasons. ("Warehouse 13" may be based on the premise of protecting the world from dangerous inventions/accidentally-created-magical-objects, and one of the two lead characters is all about common sense and intuition, but his contribution is never presented as more useful as the female lead's book knowledge and logical approach. The male lead can be sexist sometimes, but it's presented as part of his immaturity and almost always called out by the female characters. It's more "Boobies!!" than "Women should stay in the kitchen.")

But there isn't really anything special about the writing that I could tell you.

It's not like with "Spartacus", where I could talk about the very idiosyncratic dialogue style (it sounds like Shakespeare with more swearing and odd but lyrical grammar), or the bravery of starting a heroic story with the foregone conclusion of a tragic ending and total party death, and the skill of still managing to deliver a cathartic and emotionally satisfying conclusion. If you want to watch "Spartacus", by the way, you should give it about half a season time to find its feet. The pilot is a bit of a mess, it takes the special effects team about 2 or 3 episodes to calm down and find their style, the writer takes 4 episodes to lure in the cis-het-male crowd with conventional violence and female nudity before showing his true subversive colours, and the plot starts to thicken about 6 episodes in. From episode 9 on, it's pure awesome. (The prequel should be watched between the first and second season, just like it was filmed, because it has bookend scenes that spoil the finale of the first season.) That show honestly had the best damn writing I've seen in years. I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who can stand the high level of gore and the soft-core porn. Mo Ryan describes the phenomenon much better than I ever could, but that article is full of spoilers, and the finale really should be viewed without knowing how it ends for the various characters. Maybe stop reading after "But those things are essentially quibbles." The AV Club also had a very good, though spoilery, rundown of what made this show great.

I can even forgive the painful attempts of all three shows to include some gratuitous German lines. At least they took enough care to make it mostly grammatically correct, and just the actors' pronunciation / emphasis was so badly mangled that I needed the English subtitles to understand. But I've only ever seen one show that got that kind of thing right. ("Stargate Atlantis"; and it turned out that the lines were ad-libbed by the German-born bit-part actress.)
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at 22:00 on 24-08-2013, Robinson L
By all means. I, at least, have been enjoying your input, and as I mentioned a little while ago, I appreciate someone keeping the conversation going so I have something interesting to look at when I need a break from my thesis.

In fact, if you'd care to say a bit more, I guess what I was mainly trying to ask about "Sanctuary" and "Warehouse 13" is: is the writing in fact, any good? (Or is it no good, but totally worth watching anyway because X?) I know you posted some Youtube clips, but I prefer to hear/read what there is to say about the show(s) before I get into that sort of thing.

I have a bunch of other thoughts covering the recent conversation, but thesis beckons and I'd better snap back to it. May post more thoughts later. Or not.
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at 21:26 on 24-08-2013, Cheriola
... I just had to surpress the instinct to say "Sorry for rambling on so long and taking up half the Playpen."

No. There is a "last 24" button. If someone doesn't want to read my long ramblings, they don't have to. I will not apologise for talking too much or taking up too much space. I will not be ashamed or anxious for having an opinion or trying to share positive examples.

Damn internalised misogyny. No cookie.
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at 19:47 on 24-08-2013, Cheriola
Well, I think it's problematic that this reaction was usually meant to come across as funny, and I believe the term "crazy" is generally considered a slur. On the other hand, Parker really does seem to be not quite neurotypical and the neglect and abuse she suffered as a child seems to have left some genuine developmental problems and personality issues. So at least they weren't throwing the term around purely as an ableist joke (like when you call something "crazy" when you just mean "weird" or "ridiculous").

But I'm not an expert in this regard. I used the catch-all term "insane" because I can't actually tell what her disorder is meant to be and they never give her an official diagnosis as far as I remember. She just slowly gets somewhat better at connecting to her own feelings and other people under Sophie's patient tutelage.
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at 19:15 on 24-08-2013, Rami
@Cheriola: just wanted to chime in with a big +1 for Parker on Leverage -- one of my favorites. Although the general attitude amongst the other characters (and most reactions to her, especially in the early seasons / introduction scenes) is that she's "crazy" -- problematic?
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at 19:12 on 24-08-2013, Cheriola
Also, now that I'm thinking about "Leverage": I believe Parker is the only instance I've ever seen of a female character who's a rude/aggressive/antisocial, emotionally stunted, possibly insane, whoobiefied 'man'child with no social skills and lots of funny lines. And the audience loved her. So that's a step in the right direction, I suppose. (The last clip in that link isn't actually a summary of her character. She's just undercover in a mental institution playing 'Rose'. She really is an orphan and a high class cat burglar, because she's an adrenaline junkie who loves money - not spending it, just having it.)
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at 16:56 on 24-08-2013, Cheriola
Thinking about the issue of cis-male characters written in a feminine way some more, I've come up with 5 categories that I see quite often:

1) Intentional subversions in female-oriented media, where a male character gets pushed in the narrative role that traditionally a female characer would fulfil, to make a point. That's Xander on BtVS (It's been ages since I watched the show, but I remember he actually accepts this in the end, at one point telling a frustrated Dawn - Buffy's retconned-in younger sister who was pissed she wasn't allowed to take part in missions because she didn't have any superpowers - that the both of them were the same and that their job was to be the 'heart' and emotional support of the group.); Will on "Sanctuary" (He has basically the same role as the Doctor's companion, right down to being told he's got to be Helen's conscience; he's a trained psychologist and initially gets the connect-emotionally-to-the-monster jobs; and he's frequently damseled); Joxer on "Xena" (a comic relief character who has to be rescued by the female leads all the time because he's so inept). I'd count Mickey from the first season on NewWho, too, because he's fridged in the first episode to raise the stakes for Rose and his exaggerated fear serves to let her bravery shine. Also, most of his character development is about their relationship. AFAIK, the actor protested against this treatment and that's why he got upgraded to a soldier later on (instead of, for example, building on his previously established hacking/research abilities and emotional endurance).
Most of these characters seem to be either received as boring (Will), or annoying and weak (Joxer, S1!Mickey, Xander - though the latter more before he accepted his role).

2) Male characters who are kind of the "baby" in their team, usually because they're barely out of their teens and only in the company of professional adults because of some special ability. Usually they are brilliant tech-wizard geeks. These characters are allowed to be immature, emotional non-action guys because their brilliance and age excuses it. For example Henry on "Sanctuary" (tech-geek, can barely hold a gun straight, often ordered around by his action girl adoptive sister, later plays assistant to Tesla), Hardison on "Leverage" (genius hacker, but immature; only slowly gets taught some combat skills by some of the other, more experienced characters) or Bob on "ReGenesis" (see more on that show below). McKay on "Stargate Atlantis" is a bit of a subversion, because he's neither young nor nice, but he's still extremely brilliant and gets a lot of funny lines.
These characters seem to be very popular with both the male and female audience, because they serve as an audience-insert for male geeks while also being cute and funny. Plus, their emotional openess is seen as sweet, because they're not necessarily required to be all tough and 'mature' yet (they normally have older male or male-role-fulfilling characters protecting them in a big brother way). They usually get all the clever, genre-savvy jokes.

3) Visually very masculine characters where a contrasting feminine behaviour or interests are supposed to be funny. "Gentle Giants" often fall into this category. I can mainly think of a few examples in anime series, but in the West the Big Guy from "Sanctuary" comes to mind (Helen's bigfoot butler, who doesn't take part in missions but looks after the house; he mother-hens especially Henry (taking care he eats and sleeps enough), occasionally assists Helen during surgery like a nurse and likes to read chick-lit). I think Buffy also had a recurring very ugly demon character whose joke it was that he was quite harmless and girly.
These characters usually aren't important enough to gain much interest from the audience.

4) Gay characters who are either flamboyant stereotypes, or the supposedly feminine / younger / less dominant part of a gay couple (I honestly can only think of one very minor gay couple where the partners were not pushed into somewhat heterosexist roles). Lafayette on "True Blood" and Felix on "Orphan Black" belong to the first category (both are very camp, gay-best-friend type characters, though Lafayette occasionally subverts the mold and feels more like someone intentionally playing it up to annoy homophobes, instead of a stereotype that the writer has of gay people). In the 'wifey' category, I think you could count Ianto from "Torchwood" (at least in the first season he's basically just there to make good coffee, tidy up, look pretty in a suit and have sex with Jack - in fact, those are the exact qualities that he played up to get hired - I haven't seen much of the later seasons), and both Pietros and Nasir on "Spartacus" (the former was a teenage slave not in gladiator training but assisting the trainer, he was officially considered the "boy" of one of the gay gladiators and commited suicide when that guy was killed and left him without protection; the latter got a far more positive storyline, but his trajectory from sex/body slave to fighter was very close to the storyline of two female characters who started out in a similar situation, also he's shorter and younger than his ex-gladiator lover and quite pretty with long hair, in some ways he's also the more mature and emotionally secure partner, the way female characters in relationships often are)
These characters seem to be very popular, but only with the slashers. Possibly it's because they serve as an audience-insert for female viewers that allow them to enjoy a romantic storyline without dealing with the usual sexism. (Even if it's still there, and the 'wifey' character still gets fridged for the more masculine partner, it doesn't stand out as obviously, I suppose.) Lafayette is a bit of an exception because his aggressive attitude towards homophobes also makes gay audience members like him, despite the stereotypical campness. (Note: Nasir and his lover's storyline was also embraced by the gay audience, but that's because the sheer level of their narrative importance was novel, and because Nasir was never camp. Also, their ending was a glorious "Fuck you!" to the whole Bury Your Gays trope and the homophobic parts of the audience who'd told the writers to "cut out the gay shit".)

5) Nerdy, neurotic characters whose 'weakness' is supposed to be a character flaw and who slowly get 'butched up' during the course of the story. For example Wesley on BtVS, who came back a lot tougher on "Angel" (leather jacket and all). Rory in NewWho has less of a "he's a bookworm" excuse, but he still gets upgraded to legionary and gets more and more 'badass' moments over time, AFAIK. Will on "Sanctuary" also eventually got to be more useful in a fight. (Though at first he's 'chickified', i.e. he loses a lot of his competence that he was originally introduced with in order to use him as the Damsel in Distress for the plot. This normally happens to the sole female character in a team. This is why I put him in category 1.) Daniel from "Stargate SG1" was hardly recognisable by the end of the show, he'd gained so much muscle.
From what I can see, these characters generally gain popularity as they tough up. Though it's more noticeable if they didn't belong to category 2 to begin with (which Daniel for example did).


What I've rarely seen is a male character who is simply underwritten in a way that female characters often are. I mean, there are unimportant male characters of course, but they normally don't get much screentime. What's rare is a male character who's constantly there for eyecandy, but who doesn't get much characterisation or funny lines. Ianto originally belonged to this two-dimensional group in the first season (though so did Toshiko - the writers of "Torchwood" just weren't good at characterisation). I might count Steve from "Warehouse 13", because he just doesn't have the colourful personality that all the other characters on that show have. (In fact, he kind of replaced Myka as the 'single sane person' / clueless audience-insert in the narrative, because she couldn't credibly stay in that role after several years of getting used to all the weirdness. Also, the writers intentionally tried to avoid flamboyant stereotypes for this gay character. So that's part of the reason why he comes across as a bit boring.)

No-one of you has probably ever heard of this show, but the Canadian bioscience drama "ReGenesis" was rather interesting in this regard. Of the regular male characters, all had some feminine traits, and usually came across as more real, rounded persons for it. But mostly, there still were narrative excuses for their behaviour. Bob had pretty severe Asperger's and therefore was emotionally open in a childlike way and treated with kid gloves by all the other characters. (He was also a genius.) Carlos looked very masculine (played by a balding ex-kickboxer) but was very caring and by far the most emotionally stable/mature person on the show. And his greatest angst came from wanting to help HIV+ babies in Africa but not being able to take the emotional strain of seeing them die. (He was also gay.) Weston was the always polite, quiet, well-dressed assistant of the tough-as-nails female boss, and when he later took over her job, he didn't even try to keep the main character in check the way she'd done, deciding to try to negotiate and clean up messes instead. Also, he had clinical depression due to being infected with HIV and later hepatitis. (It's been suggested that this character was originally a red herring and contrast with Carlos, to make the audience think about their stereotypes about gay men. Or maybe he was just supposed to come across as very, very Canadian.) Even the main character, David - at first glance an arrogant, misanthropic, emotionally stunted House-expy - was usually very supportive of his colleagues and gentle with them when they needed it (especially Bob) and he frequently cooked for the whole team. This all led to scenes such as these.
Bob was by far the most popular character on the show, by the way.

I'd also like to mention Watson from the original Sherlock Holmes stories. Maybe this impression comes from a change in culture, but I always thought it was a little subversive to give the role of looking after the difficult male hero to a man. Watson worries about Holmes' health and nags him about getting enough food and sleep and to take less drugs. Watson is the one who chides Holmes for his rude behaviour, and who tries to bridge his inability to emotionally connect to or empathise with his clients. Watson is the one who asks all the obvious questions to let the hero's brilliance shine. This is why I was originally against casting Watson as a woman in "Elementary". It felt like a step backwards. (Though I think they subverted my expectations enough by making Joan a lot less patient and motherly than Watson usually is. Plus, looking after Sherlock and nagging him about his health is literally what she's getting paid for as his sober companion, so it comes across less as "This is what women do" than I feared.)
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at 15:49 on 24-08-2013, Arthur B
Well, we have Oglaf these days which basically has that niche covered to a nigh-exhaustive extent.
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at 00:39 on 24-08-2013, Janne Kirjasniemi
Phil Foglio's What's new with Phil & Dixie always promised to do a comic about sex and D&D, but something always stopped them. After a time you start thinking that it was some sort of running joke or something, and not accidental at all.
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at 00:21 on 24-08-2013, Arthur B
Now you've got me thinking of the IT Crowd episode where Moss uses his DMly powers for good.
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at 23:37 on 23-08-2013, Janne Kirjasniemi
As I mentioned, Community had a D&D episode, where the problem seemed to be a too demanding GM, which apparently gets a bit detailed.
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at 23:32 on 23-08-2013, Cheriola
Aha! I knew I had seen this issue raised before.
Apparently this kind of behaviour is quite common. Well, I suppose roleplays are one way of learning social skills and how not to discomfort other people... Or maybe it's just that a certain sort of people enjoy making others uncomfortable. Given that the same age/gender group that most starting roleplayers belong to is also prone to hazing as a college clique entry ritual... You can only hope they grow out of it by the time they become adults.
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at 23:27 on 23-08-2013, Janne Kirjasniemi
Yeah, the idea as such is not categorically wrong and I guess if the group in question were very much into the improvised acting bit and the situation built up organically, it's not unthinkable. But that already is a lot of ifs and surely there should be a general agreement of what people want out of the game. A very immersive experience of being someone else in a changed reality or something less serious, maybe just a fun game among friends with more interaction and acting than in other games. Assuming that there is a single better way of going about it and not taking into account what people want and are comfortable with is the problem.
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at 23:00 on 23-08-2013, Arthur B
I honestly don't see an issue with it in tabletop RPGs provided that all the participants are comfortable with it happening. But apparently giving a shit about not discomforting people for the sake of a game makes you a neo-Puritan these days.
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at 22:55 on 23-08-2013, Cheriola
Oh dear. And now I'm imagining how this would go in an all-het!male tabletop RPG group, where some play a female character for whatever reason. Awkward.

Though now that I think about it, sex-inclusive chat RPGs seem to be quite popular with slashers... (The co-authored 'stories' can occasionally be found in fanfic archives, usually recognisable by the ever-switching narrative tense and POV, and the bad grammar.) I assume the level of intimacy is previously agreed upon in that case. It's probably more a form of online sex with the added emotional buffer of assuming a persona, to help overcome inhibitions.
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at 22:36 on 23-08-2013, Janne Kirjasniemi
your interactions with them are mostly improvised (unless you're dealing with a railroady GM with a very limited and specific plan for the NPC in question).

I can only imagine how cringe inducing such sessions must be for a GM and players who are not into this sort of stuff. And not at all surprised if any and all NPCs start exploding spontaneously as the PC in question starts to lower his voice and put on a lute version of a Barry White song.
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at 22:10 on 23-08-2013, Arthur B
Reading a book is also normally a solitary and private affair, not something you share with people with whom you don't have the level of comfort to talk about your sexual fetishes.

Also, the people in books aren't played by real people, and the scenarios they get into are preordained by their author, whereas in a tabletop RPG or LARP someone's playing the character you are interacting with, and your interactions with them are mostly improvised (unless you're dealing with a railroady GM with a very limited and specific plan for the NPC in question). So the book comparison doesn't work because when you're writing a book you generally don't need the OOC consent of the people playing the protagonist before you have them perform an intersection of uglies.
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at 21:55 on 23-08-2013, Janne Kirjasniemi
Dear lord. Please tell me that wouldn't fly in Scandinavia?


I've only been involved in a few LARPs and that sort of nonsense was strictly verboten, for obvious reasons, although I know a couple who met in an event that went on over a weekend. They were both adults, but I don't think anything weird got on, they just met there.

There has been gossip though of things getting weird among hard core larpers, who approach the thing as the most extreme form of experimental theatre. And while I know that people approach it very seriously and supposedly some one could try to manipulate people that way, these things sound a bit too vague and tabloidy to say anything certain except: not cool at all. Not impossible, though.

Very, very few people seem to realise that sex-positivity also includes respecting people's right to not want it.

In this way sexuality acts like politics in many (heteronormative)circumstances. Once you've figured out what you're like, it becomes the only possible way and everybody else are either repressed or otherwise wrong. And then it's time to trot out evolutionary psychology and "common sense" to explain why some observable behaviour is more natural than other observable behaviour. Extra points for somehow connecting the assumed sexual behaviour of canines, felines or other hominidae to the issue.
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at 21:26 on 23-08-2013, Cheriola
@Arthur: I know about the anti-prude motivation to write such screeds. It's just that my minority group is still fighting for basic recognition as existent, so any statement that erases us bugs me especially. Particularly because lines like "sexual desire is a basic human trait" (meaning aces are non-human, I suppose?) or "everyone wants sex" show up depressingly often on supposedly progressive feminist blogs, too. Usually in the context of arguments against slut-shaming. Very, very few people seem to realise that sex-positivity also includes respecting people's right to not want it. I know of exactly one general feminist blog aware enough to have a comment policy acknowledging that ace-erasing statements will not be tolerated any more than homophobic ones. And even that is just lip service, really.

And comparing it to a book or story written by anyone: if the story is not of an appropriate genre, the eroticism is usually very limited, as it is very rarely plot relevant, almost always a huge failure and takes time from everything else.


Reading a book is also normally a solitary and private affair, not something you share with people with whom you don't have the level of comfort to talk about your sexual fetishes. And you can skip or skim-read the sex scenes if you want. I generally don't, but I know aces who are so bored with the issue that they do that.

I sincerely hope that guy is not into LARP.


Dear lord. Please tell me that wouldn't fly in Scandinavia? Every LARP-con rulebook I've ever seen mentioned that sexual scenes are outlawed, because you can never know what the other player has been through in their life and what will trigger them. And even if you play with your personal friends, partner or spouse, there is a good chance someone else will stumble upon you, and some of them will be minors.
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at 20:29 on 23-08-2013, Janne Kirjasniemi
Another person's discomfort is not my lord and master. Freedom of speech and of belief gives me the right to make other people uncomfortable.

It sucks to be them.


It doesn't really suck to be them. They can just express their own freedom of opinion and get the hell out to play an RPG where they actually get to have fun. Perhaps his problem is that he has this very peculiar fetish and rather than trying to find other adults to humor him, he has got into his head that this freedom thing does not mean that he has a right to have this quirk, but it means that everybody else has to participate in and encourage him in his oddities. He shouldn't really get angry when people call him out on it.
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at 20:19 on 23-08-2013, Fin
Another person's discomfort is not my lord and master. Freedom of speech and of belief gives me the right to make other people uncomfortable.

It sucks to be them.


Well, at least he's honest about being an arsehole, I guess?

So people like me just don't exist in his universe, do they? Asshole.


Yeah, that part really pissed me off.
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at 19:22 on 23-08-2013, Arthur B
I have been gently prodding them in the comments and seem to have inspired a follow-up blog post equating people who aren't cool with you suddenly going into detail about how you intend a sexual encounter to go with homophobes.

Nice.
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