Sorry Not Sorry 1: I read Homestuck

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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4 thoughts on “Sorry Not Sorry 1: I read Homestuck

  1. captionread says:

    I also like Homestuck and I think you summed it up well. Slurs aren’t really limited to just bitch though. Homestuck also uses ableist and homophobic slurs. Homestuck is also pretty cissexist. There are no canon trans* characters and at one point a character explains that humans can only reproduce heterosexually. There is also a villain character who is constantly spouting misogynistic crap. I’ve heard several women say that the character makes the story difficult to enjoy.
    Basically there’s a lot bad in Homestuck but it’s still a fun read for me.

    I get what you’re saying about the fandom but it never really bothered me. A lot of people in the fandom are young, and I think it’s pretty natural for young teenagers to make smut of young teenagers. People at that age don’t necessarily think of themselves as kids the way older people do. But, yeah, it can be uncomfortable if you are older. I’m honestly more annoyed by the guy-worshiping that goes on. Dave could fart and tumblr would be flooded with posts about how tormented he is.

    But there are a lot of awesome people in the fandom too. Many people are aware that the fandom is dude-focused and retaliate by being aggressively lady-centric and it’s great. There are also things like pocstuck and transstuck which re-imagine the characters as PoC or trans*. It’s really just a matter of finding the right people to follow and ignoring the gross side of the fandom (and using tumblr savior to block content you don’t want).

    Anyway, I found your blog through Requires Hate and I’ve been slowly making my way through it. I like the way you write and the topics you’ve chosen. Good work!

    • cetaillefer says:

      Thanks for coming over and reading! I hope you’ll keep posting :>

      You’re right in that Caliborn (and also Gamzee) have made recent updates pretty tough to read – at the time I wrote this entry, I don’t think a lot of the cherub updates had happened, but for sure, reading villains as awful because look at them say awful things is just not my bag.

      The fandom thing is sort of an unfair jab, in that you can easily read Homestuck and for the most part, never touch the fandom if you don’t want to. But there’s so much good art out there that you do miss out at least not looking a little. the flexibility that people have taken with the story – genderbent Striders, tons of women-centric stories and pairings, POCstuck (Hadn’t heard of transstuck before but that rules!). The art alone makes wading in at least a little totally worth it.

  2. windlikeabsence says:

    *SPOILERS AHEAD*

    *HUGE SPOILERS*

    *REALLY REALLY HUGE*

    *NO SERIOUSLY I’M ASSUMING YOU’VE READ ALL OF HOMESTUCK AS IT IS AT THIS POINT DON’T READ THIS IF YOU DON’T WANT BASICALLY THE ENTIRE THING SPOILED FOR YOU*

    (Wow, I cut out a full third of that and it’s still a lot longer than I meant it to be. Sorry for the wall of text; most of it will probably be cut-off anyway but I hope someone at least finds it interesting.)

    The Homestuck fandom is about as terrible as any other fandom– it’s not the fandom, it’s the people in it. The only reason Homestuck is more well-known for it is because Homestuck has weird and strange in-jokes on its own, and the fandom embraces that completely– even coming up with their own equally weird and strange in-joke, like calling Homestuck an anime and invading anime cons all the time (though from what I’ve seen we’ve become a bit more accepted there now). It doesn’t help that it took a little while before the art of Homestuck cosplay was refined to the point that leaving grey streaks on everything they touched was a thing of the past. Basically, the Homestuck fandom has its bad apples, but so does every other fandom.

    As for Hussie’s asshole-like tendencies… well, his sense of humor is strange, but I think it’s a result of his weird views on irony and satire rather than true sexism or racism. To put it in perspective, the Striders have been repeatedly cited as the Homestuck characters that are closest to what Hussie’s real-life personality is actually like– *especially* Dirk. I think the fact that Hussie can portray a cast consisting of more strong, three-dimensional female characters than male ones with an amazing amount of plausibility, even accuracy, says more about his true mindset. The asshole-ishness has more to do with the fact that Hussie doesn’t give two shits about political correctness and cares even less about whether you’re offended by something he says or not. In fact, he didn’t apologize and change the whole ‘Caucasian’ thing because people called him out for it; he changed it because his fans were flaming the aforementioned people for “trying to censor” the comic– it was an admonishment of and apology for his fans, not an apology for his actions. I actually respect him more because of that; I don’t think I’ve seen any other artist refuse to censor something in response to criticism, then decide to censor it AND reprimand their fans when the latter go too far in defending them.

    It doesn’t help that the man just might be a genius– no tiny detail in the comic is forgotten, everything ties back together, and the fact that most of it is improvised with no editing only makes it more mind-boggling. The comic is rife with subtleties and implications, making you realize new things about plot twists and character backstories years after they were first revealed– each leaving you gaping with shock, then slapping yourself for not realizing it earlier. He has a strong enough understanding of literary tropes, stereotypes, satirization, and characterization to overturn several at once while still creating characters that are complex and likable in their own right– he even deliberated designed and engineered the ultimate basebreaker just to see if he could, and I don’t think even he expected to succeed as wildly as he did. His satirization of social justice warriors in Kankri is just as accurate and deftly cutting as it is sensible considering what we know of him and his background, his portrayal of Porrim as a sexually promiscuous yet elegant and motherly character who came to accept that she could do things that are traditionally considered feminine while still being a feminist is amazing, his ability to make a character as deliberately repulsive as Equius a likable and even tragic character is astounding; on top of that, all three of those are only a few examples of his treatment of *side* characters! His handling of the ones that can be considered the co-protagonists is even more awe-inspiring in their depth and subtlety– and don’t even get me started on the masterpiece that is Vriska. (Oops too late.)

    Whether you like her or not, Vriska is *objectively* the strongest, deepest, and most well-defined character in the entire comic. Personally, I’d also venture to say she’s one of the greatest characters in literature, *period*. I’m not saying that Homestuck itself is one of the greatest works of literature (though I’d certainly like to say that), but Vriska herself, at least in terms of sheer characterization, is arguably one of the greatest characters in literature. I could write a whole thesis on any one of the characters in Homestuck (with the possible exceptions of Hearts Boxcars or Ms. Paint) and a novel on the more prominent ones, but to do Vriska’s character justice would require an entire series of novels looking into her backstory, personality, and relationships individually while tying them all together– and that’s assuming I only skim over all the parts that don’t directly concern Vriska’s character, like Alternian culture and why Scratch’s influence on it might not have anything to do with the personalities of the Beta and Alpha Trolls, or the way Aranea’s description of her powers don’t align with Vriska’s and how their upbringings might explain that, or why John’s current view on Vriska is based on erroneous conclusions but he’s still justified in being wary of her, or why the relationship between Vriska and dead!John was destined to fail, or how Vriska’s title reflects who and what she is in terms of both literal and metaphorical symbolism– and that’s barely even touching the surface.

    (I’ll admit that my glasses might be rather rose-tinted here, but I’ve also analyzed Homestuck to the point where I freely admit that I have no life outside of it, so I think I have some room to talk, at least.)

    As for ableism, well, to be fair, I’m still not sure what that means. I’m told it’s prejudice against disability by marginalizing it or treating it as an inherently bad thing, but a lot of the criticisms I’ve heard that cite ableism don’t really make much sense to me by that definition– maybe I’m just misunderstanding something, I don’t know. The best I can come up with, in this context, is that characters like Terezi are ableist because they can essentially be treated as if they weren’t blind due to supernatural abilities. I could point out that even a human who can see can heighten their other senses just by closing their eyes, that long-term blindness tends to sharpen the other senses even more, and that synesthesia is a real-world occurrence (even if none of the aforementioned are half as sensitive as Terezi’s is depicted to be), Terezi is a member of an alien race that canonically have supernatural abilities all the time (including empathy, animal empathy, telekinesis, super strength, the ability to communicate with the dead, eye lasers, etc.), and was taught how to do so in her dreams by her unhatched dragon mom (who normally navigate in the same exact way) because she would’ve been culled like all other trolls with perceived disabilities or weaknesses if she actually were truly blind, but I think everyone already knows that. Instead, I’m gonna try something else.

    I can’t speak for the disabled, not being disabled myself, so I can only try to identify with it by using my experience as a woman. It probably won’t translate well, but it’s the best way I can think of it explain my point of view without point-by-point going through every single disabled Homestuck character’s personality and characterization how it compares to that of the other characters. This is probably going to be more opinion- than fact-based, but I hope that at least it makes sense and is interesting food for thought.

    As a woman, I think of myself as a feminist and agree that today’s society, while progressing, is still predominantly chauvinist– yet, I find myself disliking most feminist criticisms of works. This isn’t because they’re wrong, necessarily, or because they don’t have a point, but because I find that most of them treat women in fiction as much like objects as chauvinists do. They are criticized for being too meek, too callous, too cold, too dumb, too materialistic, too sexualized, and more. This is fine when a female character is mostly characterized by that one trait, because that’s a strong indicator that, yes, a stereotype is in play here. There are plenty of characters that essentially say that women with ambition are ice-cold bitches, that women are stupid and cannot care for themselves, that women are materialistic and manipulative, etc. However, I find that the same criticisms are often applied to three-dimensional characters, who have strong personalities and in-depth backstories yet find themselves criticized for appearing, on the surface, to resemble a stereotype. It’s fine to call out a stereotype as a stereotype, but when you take a strong, well-developed character and lambast them because it *looks* like a stereotype… well, it starts to look like you’re treating female characters as banners for the feminist movement to fly rather than characters with personalities and histories of their own. In other words, it feels like they’re female characters instead of characters who are female– as if being female is a defining trait in and of itself, rather than just one trait out of many. It might be a lesser form of objectification, but it’s still objectification.

    It feels a lot like that when it comes to other things, too. Black characters instead of characters who are black, Asian characters instead of characters who are Asian, disabled characters instead of characters who are disabled. Tavros is paralyzed from the waist down and it affects a large part of his life, but his whole personality doesn’t revolve around it. He’s also a shy, sensitive guy, who likes Pupa Pan and Fiduspawn and animals, who has trouble asserting himself and is a little impulsive, who is kind of cowardly and would rather give up than persevere in the face of adversity but forgives too easily and blames himself too often. Terezi is blind and can mostly get around it due to her ludicrously powerful form of synesthesia, but she’s also a justice-obsessed, macabre little girl who loves dragons and stages mock courtroom dramas with dragon dolls, who has a keen understanding of people and how they work and loves to manipulate them for her own entertainment, who doesn’t always realize the consequences of her mind games on her relationships until she’s experiencing them, who saw her blindness and synesthesia as such an integral part of her identity that her dreamself was blind when Tavros’ dreamself had full use of his legs.

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