Susanna J. Sturgis   Martha's Vineyard writer and editor
writer editor born-again horse girl

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Desert Fantasies

January 23, 2010

Here's another one from To Be Rather Than to Seem -- and one of the longer ones at that. It takes off from, and shares an epigraph with, a longer, mid-1980s essay that you can find on this website. The link's at the bottom.

* * *

A fantasy is a journey. It is a journey
into the subconscious mind, just as psychoanalysis is.
Like psychoanalysis, it can be dangerous;
and it will change you.

Ursula K. Le Guin
"From Elfland to Poughkeepsie"

I watched plenty of TV growing up. Most likely I watched Star Trek a few times as a teenager, but neither it nor the space operas that succeeded it made a big impression. When I read Joanna Russ's 1985 essay "Pornography by Women for Women, with Love," I was only dimly aware of Star Trek fan fiction -- fans writing and circulating stories set in the Star Trek universe and featuring Star Trek characters. "Pornography by Women" is an exuberant, entrancingly red-faced examination of a thriving subgenre of Star Trek fan fiction: "Kirk/Spock" (or "K/S") stories. K/S stories focus, in varying degrees of explicitness, on the sexual and emotional relationship between the (male) characters Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock of the starship Enterprise. The avid writers, publishers, and readers of K/S stories were virtually all women.

Was I, lesbian feminist that I was, shocked? I was not. I was shrieking and blushing in instant recognition, not because I was a closet K/S fan, but because I had been writing my own equivalent for more than twenty years. All the characters in my fantasy world were men. Until I read Russ's essay, this did not seem an, uh, appropriate topic for feminist discourse. Joanna Russ -- lesbian, feminist, and high on my list of most-admired writers -- changed all that.

I was ten or eleven when I started writing these stories down. The landscape of my early attempts was Wild Western -- no surprise there, since I was a horse-crazy kid and all my favorite TV shows were westerns: Wagon Train, Maverick, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, The Virginian, and The Wild, Wild West, among others. My stories starred the Flint McCullough character from Wagon Train, played by Robert Horton.Though, or maybe because, Flint was impossibly cool, I subjected him to draconian hardships. He'd be captured by bad guys and then pistol-whipped, horsewhipped, or suspended by his thumbs over a roaring fire. These grueling scenes enabled me to arrange the daring rescue of my hero and his subsequent recovery -- after which he could be captured and tortured again.

After I saw Lawrence of Arabia for the first time, in early 1963, the Wild West landscape morphed into desert. (Possibly significant aside: I passed up an opportunity to see How the West Was Won with the rest of the family in order to see Lawrence with my grandmother.) "Aurans" and "Ali" were the original stars of my fantasy -- as I recall it, my premise was that after the war Lawrence disappeared into the desert and was never seen again -- but before long they and the rest of the Lawrence cast receded into the background and vanished. My fantasy world developed its own geography and characters. The desert remained. In appearance and custom the people were vaguely Bedouin, organized into clans and tribes, living by herding, raiding, and some crop cultivation. Once every generation or so, they would fight a truly epic war, then spend the next generation dealing with the consequences. Technology was basic, horses were of primary importance, and weaponry consisted of swords and the occasional rifle.

Many a plot was driven by animosity between a father and a son, but where the sons came from wasn't clear, because women were even more absent from my fantasy world than they were from Lawrence of Arabia. Plain, noncharismatic men of ordinary ability and low rank were almost as absent as women; they did come in handy when I wanted to kill someone off. They also explained how my protagonists and antagonists managed to eat, because my main characters were almost never seen tending livestock, harvesting vegetables, or preparing meals. They were far too busy riding, fighting, and having hot sex.

My viewpoint characters were nearly always princes who had fallen on hard times. Their lineage was impeccable, but by the time the story started they were captives, hostages, slaves, and/or sole survivors of massacres in which most of their people perished. These humbled princes almost invariably become lovers and protégés of their captors or rescuers, who were always older than their lovers, often by a generation. Eventually the protégés are either restored to their birth rank, or elevated to another appropriately responsible position.

Do I still have any of these stories? Are you kidding? Page after page of hot homosex with implicit and often blatant sadomasochistic overtones, and all in my own handwriting? This was not stuff that could fall into the hands of parents, younger siblings, college roommates, or, eventually, lesbian feminist housemates. If my parents knew how warped my imagination was, surely they would trot me off to a shrink. So I hid it in places that no one ever looked, like the cardboard file cabinets where I kept all my Middle East news clippings, or I carried it around with me, and at regular intervals I destroyed it. Burning was best, but when no fireplace or incinerator was available, I'd shred it, dump it into the garbage, and carry it out to the alley on trash collection day.

Joanna Russ's "Pornography by Women, for Women, with Love" made it clear that I sure wasn't the only woman having these fantasies. "Slash fiction" -- so named for the slash in "Kirk/Spock," or "K/S" for short -- proliferated. Any male buddy duo from the small or large screen, it seemed, was fair game for female fantasies.

From the late 1970s, through the 1980s, and well into the 1990s, I was an amateur specialist in fantasy and science fiction by women. I was struck by how relatively common male-male relationships were in these stories, and how rare were sexual relationships and partnerships between women -- even in works by committed feminist writers, some of whom were lesbians. The male-male relationships were generally less erotic and much less violent than those of my desert fantasies and the clandestine world of slash fiction, but they had to be springing from the same Great Female Subconscious, didn't they? During the '90s, I participated in several science fiction convention panels with titles like "Girls on Boys on Boys" that explored the phenomenon raucously and pithily at the same time.

My own take was that my imagination had been strongly shaped by all the movies and TV shows I loved as a kid. My tastes were eclectic. I acquired the evening news habit when still in elementary school; in addition to TV westerns, I watched variety shows like Ed Sullivan, late-night talk shows like Jack Paar, and anything politically irreverent and funny, like The Smothers Brothers and, eventually, Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. Later, as westerns grew scarce, I turned to shows about World War II, like Rat Patrol. Sitcoms I generally avoided, though I was a big Hogan's Heroes fan. What these shows had in common, apart from the later Laugh-In, is that women were peripheral, if not totally absent.

I had no trouble whatsoever identifying with the male heroes of these TV shows, or movies either -- until women appeared on the screen. When women appeared, the interesting action stopped and it was time to go to the concession stand for popcorn or downstairs for a snack. I didn't learn the word "dissonance" till many years later, but that's what I was experiencing. Once actors of both sexes occupied the screen, my belief that sex didn't matter was shaken and I had a harder time identifying with the male protagonists. Not only were the female characters embarrassing, the male heroes usually got sappy and stupid when they showed up. It seemed only polite to avert my eyes until they came back to their senses.

Before I read Russ's slash essay, I had tried and tried to write women into my desert fantasies. Again and again I failed. My male characters spoke, acted, and got in and out of trouble with no conscious help from me. The women faded away as soon as I stopped propping them up. My fantasy world, it seemed, had its own internal logic, its own laws and dynamics, and it resisted coercion with Gandhian persistence. When a writer, asked why she made this or that choice, responds with "That's the way it happened," I understand completely. When a capable fiction writer forces a character to act in a certain way, it's often obvious to readers who are caught up in the story.

Writers aren't entirely at the mercy of their creations, however. My first attempts to create fictional characters who were larger than svelte -- fat, even -- were not successful. As soon as I let them go, they'd all shrink to socially acceptable size. I couldn't blame my fictional world for this. This world was here and now, and since I myself was considerably larger than svelte I knew bloody well that large women and fat women were as capable as small-sized ones. The limits were being imposed by my own imagination. The imagination doesn't take kindly to coercion, and fantasies resist attempts to suppress or repress them. But like a stampede, which can be turned but not stopped dead in its tracks, they can be nudged and shaped. Practice does make a difference.

As the feminist sex debates got under way around 1980, many feminists leapt to one side or the other: pro pornography or against it, pro s/m or against it. Me? Hah! I had zero interest in promoting the porn industry, but here I'd been writing my own porn for years. ("Erotica"? No way. The main reason for writing, reading, and rereading this stuff was to turn myself on.) And since the power dynamics of my fantasy world were blatantly sadomasochistic, I couldn't exactly claim to be "anti-s/m." Celebrating the practice of s/m or use of pornography wasn't on my political agenda, but as a feminist I sure was fascinated by their hold on my imagination and that of many other women.

Once I started looking for patterns in my fantasies, I saw that my imagination had created a world where it was safe to be powerless, and totally not in control. The exact opposite of the family I grew up in, where my father continually ridiculed my mother for not having the right answer and my mother continually set herself up for ridicule with claims so illogical they made me cringe. I'd kept myself safe over the years by always having the right answer, shutting up when I didn't, and becoming expert in fields my father didn't know much about. Learning new skills inevitably meant an extended period of fumbling around and looking like an idiot, so either I shied away from new things or I mastered the basics and then dropped out when I was almost ready to try my rudimentary skills among people who were already proficient. The geography of my fantasy world was alien on its surface, but I was more at home there than I was anywhere else.

In the spring of 1985 -- not long after Joanna Russ's essay appeared, and shortly before I moved to Martha's Vineyard -- I attended a workshop in Baltimore led by novelist Maureen Brady. The workshop was called "Secrets, Settings, and Characters," or something like that. In the "secrets" section, Maureen had us write at the top of a piece of paper "I could never tell anyone that . . ." and then run with it. I wrote about not being able to tell anyone in my lesbian feminist community that all of my fantasies were about men. With most of the workshop's free-writing exercises, we volunteered to read our own work. Because of the nature of this one, Maureen said she would be glad to read some of the writing herself; we could put it in a box with no name attached. I did so. Mine was one of the pieces she read aloud. Within half an hour I was claiming it as mine. By the end of the year I had written a full-blown essay about it, "What's a P.C. Feminist like You Doing in a Fantasy like This? A Few Answers and a Few Questions." It was published in the spring 1986 issue of Lesbian Contradiction.

 

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