Category: Classy Critique Corner

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AEW Double or Nothing Pre Show: Part 2

AEW Double or Nothing Pre Show: Part 2

Backstage

A girl who presents like Bayley on meth is backstage saying things. Apparently, she was like this first, which is a bit of a bummer as, first or not, the work is on her to demonstrate difference from her more famous comparison. I have yet to see “Girl who is happy” be a character with much depth if she is always happy. Bayley would frequently get serious, mad, etcetera, and this was much needed variety. But Smiley Kiley Ray gets all of a few seconds so I won’t hold anything against her yet.

She’s interrupted by two librarians who shush a bunch. This is obnoxiously bad for two reasons: 1, wrestlers who are jobs; and 2, the most it could be is funny and it isn’t that. Wrestlers who are other jobs is not a personality or character, prior roles can inform those, but otherwise there is no narrative reason for you to be here. Things like this can work when you’re creating or twisting within an established story world, otherwise it’s a comedian getting on stage and telling you about this hilarious thing his friend said before telling you that you probably had to be there. Like a lot of the show, this feels like an in-joke, which is stupid in a context where you are trying to create a new In.

We go to a video recap of Cody/Dustin which is great but I’ll talk about that when I get to the match, otherwise we’re onto their first singles match.

Kip Sabian vs Sammy Guevara

Expectations:

I have neither heard of nor seen anything from these two so that creates a kind of starting bias. Without any prior narrative to draw on, the pair are given a single point around which to make their impact, so I’m keeping this in mind. Aside from this, they both look lean and light, but not explicitly lucha, so I’m expecting some decent spots. That said, this is the pilot for a series, so spots alone won’t carry the match.

The Match

Out of the gate, the commentators do their jobs which is already addressing my problem of not having any narrative. They tell me about Sammy, about how he’s an irritatingly egotistical self-promoter. They don’t explain the panda motif, but since they’ve done some other work, that can be a point to be revealed as opposed to a frustrating piece of meaningless festoonery designed to distract from a lack of personality. He expresses his character in the ring the moment he gets in, lazing on the turnbuckle and bothering the ref when Sabian is entering, so he is already exceeding expectation. A competent match will be enough and anything good will impress.

Kip Sabian (Sabin?, the announcer pronounced it like that), enters and the commentary actually explain why this match exists, why each wants to win it, and how to buy the PPV. COMPETANCE! He’s basically the same archetype as Sammy, which is what led to the match, and I like that. This town ain’t big enough sorta thing between two very similar wrestlers creates a natural conflict point and a goal besides just “win”. NJPW does this a bit, where it’s less about winning as much as it’s about how you win, and this secondary goal point creates an internal logic for spots that would otherwise be fucking stupid.

You let a guy elbow you in the face 6 times to prove that you aren’t just lucky, you’re stronger and better. Kip and Sammy are already expressing this with a mirrored headscissor takedown to kick-up routine. This tells me that they both think they are so much better than the other that they can afford to be showy, and this creates a narrative reason for a lot of the fancier stuff I am expecting. This is a great example of meshing character and narrative to create a logical platform for the in-ring expression. I am pleased.

Excalibur is doing a reasonable job of explaining why the wrestlers do things and Sammy does a backflip over an Irish whip before basking in the audience attention. Some great character moments follow, Sammy avoiding the obvious attack only to be read by Kip and punished. I have now learned, through the medium of wrestling, that while both are egotistical, Kip is smarter and more serious. Excellent work.

The ref is active in a good way, looks like she actually remembers rules exist. Excalibur explains why Kip is going for Sammy’s legs, take out the high flying, and is emphasising that he lacks experience when Kip does things too close to the ropes. Again, more examples of how commentary supplements character and helps define the narrative.

Over the top to the floor suplex was a little sloppy looking. I’ve not seen it before, so I am assuming the point is to carry the momentum through. Going to the effort of generating momentum only to stop it may work for The People’s Elbow, but it is an otherwise poor idea as it breaks the internal logic of wrestling. Momentum equals more move damage, killing it kills the move.

Sammy does a neat shooting star press to a hung up Kip. Well, I’d think it were neat but I could barely get a look at it as whatever blighted dipshit is producing this edited it like it was Liam Neeson trying to jump a fence. I can’t say this clearly enough: EDITING BREAKS IMMERSION. Hollywood has occasional excuses in the form of having to edit around the fact that your star is often not a stuntman, doing it when it’s pro-wrestling is inexcusable.

GAAAAAH!

Sammy heralds a 630 and cops Kip’s knees in the back. Kip does his finisher, The (sigh) Deathly Hallows, a kind of sit down reverse FU, and wins. Were I on commentary, I’d have emphasised that Sammy lost because he was shouting the move he was going to do to impress fans. If you want losses to have meaning, they have to occur for reasons. Sammy’s ego told Kip what was coming next, which was why he was able to reverse it.

The commentary was still a bit dry and slow, but I’ll forgive them that here and focus on the good work done in calling the match and explaining the narrative elements.

The production so far has been worryingly bad, WWE bad, and this stands out terribly when “not WWE” is one of your primary marketing gimmicks. Big spots were missed in the Battle Royal, okay, maybe a bit chaotic, but big spots missed like Sammy’s suicide dive?  Are you taking a nap? That and the camera cutting during moves have got to stop. These aren’t aesthetic choices, they are measurable mistakes when presenting dramatic violence and doubly stupid when the people you are filming are the ones doing all the cool shit.  

Overall, the match exceeded expectations. It had a nice lock-up opening that emphasised that it was a wrestling match, the clash of similar characters created a reason for the showiness, and the characters defined themselves through their wrestling. Nothing was unforgivably sloppy, and (production aside) the bits that were supposed to wow me did. Can’t ask for more from the competitors so I am excited to see more, and this is a very good start to AEW’s singles competition.

Star Rating

I’ve already written here about the stupidity of this, but I’ll say it again: homogenous rating systems for wildly variable creative works are done by lazy people to get idiots to argue. Putting them at the end of an otherwise well written piece just nudges dingbats into further illiteracy and weaker critical understanding of the thing they are supposed to love.

This match gets a 12 out of Umlaut

The Tail End

The video package for Sadie Gibbs looks good and it’s nice to be able to see something like this and be excited for it as opposed to dreading the inevitable waste. Whether AEW will succeed is still very open to debate, what isn’t is the near clockwork efficiency of WWE’s failings.

Hey, Adequate ‘ol JR, neat.

Ending on the Executive Vice Presidents arriving is a solid idea and gives a kind of character to the event. Cody continues to look like a young Geese Howard, Kenny reminds us that he is an internet goof, and the Young Bucks remind us that they are the Family Guy cutaway gags of wrestling. Cody playing straight helps counterbalance the goofy in-joke-ness of the others. I don’t want to sound like I don’t like comedy in wrestling, I love it, but like a lot of things, you have to be judicious with it as comic tone can disrupt any attempt at seriousness. This goes triple for meta, which is my primary concern with anything Young Bucks.

I wish Wrestling Arcade would make a fucking game already. Ah well, bring on the main show!

By Gabe

AEW: Double or Nothing Pre Show

AEW: Double or Nothing Pre Show

Like a lot of single, unemployed 36-year-old men, I am a big fan of the art of Professional Wrestling, and in 2019, it has never been a better time to be an art buff. New promotions are hardly news, nobody even bothered to read the press release for my one based around stop-motion teddy bears, but when one has the backing of a billionaire and several of the saner sounding performers, the world takes notice. And so it was that Double or Nothing, from the newly minted All Elite Wrestling, burst into life. Technically their second stab at it, this one serves as a kind of pilot for what will be a series proper, and, as this is a rare opportunity, I decided to write about it. If for no other reason than nobody else I know pays attention to wrestling and there’s only so much a bus stranger is willing to tolerate.

As it is new, I am going into this fairly raw. While it’s impossible not to be aware of a lot of the roster, I have consciously avoided doing any research on anyone, as I want to receive the performance as AEW’s new creative world intends. Additionally, except the battle royal, this will not be a strict blow-by-blow recount of events. This is closer to critique than news, so it is expected that you’ll have a working knowledge of the work being discussed.

I’ll also be discussing my expectations of things going into them. I tend to only see this in discussions around wrestling (and other media besides) when something has failed terribly or succeeded wildly, but it’s an important thing to discuss in general. This is because it gives readers a way to frame their understanding of a critical point.

What I mean by this last bit is that when someone says something is Great and you say it’s Good, they’ll only see the relative difference between those two points and not the fact that the thing being discussed is still of a high quality. Basically, if you jump up and down, telling me something is the best thing ever, that’s the bar set, so even something very good is going to fall below that. I’ve been through this dozens of times with dozens of things, most notably with Breaking Bad and Bioshock: Infinite, and I don’t expect it to work but I’ll go to my grave trying.

The Name

I am already not a big fan of the All Elite Wrestling moniker. As a standalone, it’s overdone. Nobody would expect Partially Elite Wrestling or Frequently Elite Wrestling, so All is an odd determiner to use. As a reference to the name of the core group of wrestle-friends who are producing it, it’s a tad on the nose and brings up minor concerns regarding a dominant group both booking and wrestling for a promotion. All this said, AE-Dub is a fairly innocuous initialism so these are minor points.

The Buy-In

Having some basic shit going on to keep the early arrivals busy is one thing, but I’m finding the increasing complexity and plot relevance of pre-shows to be counter to the idea. If it were a series of single matches, or even a battle royal, that just introduced some potential hires to an audience who may never have seen them, that’s one thing, but that there’s a stipulation (winner gets a shot at the belt) means this is critical to AEW’s fledgling narrative world and so having it exist as a diminished, separate pre-show is a mistake.

My expectations for this are just a bit above average. A battle royal is not the format for deeper narrative expression, and the chaos of that many people lends itself toward sloppy spots, so they’re always a mixed bag. I expect a bit more than say, the WWE, though, as this is a new fed with a less restricted move set and many young up-and-comers all trying to make a good impression. I am predicting this will lead to some fun spots that will elevate it above the somewhat messy nature of the match type. Otherwise, this will be thoughts-as-I-go with a little pausing for an idea or two.

And we’re off.

I like Excalibur from about go, never heard of him before this but he has a good voice for this and seems to know what he’s talking about. Alex Marvez looks and talks like the audience is the principal and he’s explaining why the school dress code doesn’t apply to him. I’m giving them some leeway, though, as things like commentary chemistry can’t be forced. Dryness or some quiet moments will be largely ignored, but anything worse is cause for concern.

TOO MANY RULES. Fucking hell, this feels like Wrestlers of Catan and all to fit the casino motif is absolutely not worth it. Why are there groups? Are these functioning as teams? I don’t feel like any of this will be meaningfully relevant to the way the match flows either so the whole thing is like taking 2 minutes to explain Uno to the audience before Avengers starts.

Starting with guys in the ring already is a bit of a bummer too, but one I’ll let slide. The roster is hardly set yet so having fully organised entrance themes/videos to bind them to is beyond fair expectation.

Okay, so the clubs are in the ring, oh and Excalibur is explaining that yes, the rules are needlessly complicated and this is a basic battle royal. Of the clubs there’s Sid Haig fresh of a Simpsons cameo, my Christopher Daniels CAW, my Akira Tozawa CAW, a guy with no legs, and MJF who looks like the anime main character in a crowd shot already. Michael Nakazawa gets a good reaction from the audience, but I’ve otherwise little to go on.

MJF reminds me of a rich lady’s corgi with that scarf and he is absolutely a guy who had a trollface pic as his avi on a message board somewhere.

Marvez is talking and I realize I haven’t understood a word of it. He’s the perfect white noise, I have achieved Buddha nature and returned only to finish this article and be a bodhisattva.

LOOKS LIKE IT’S TIME TO OIL UP! Excalibur helpfully telling me that the man using baby oil uses baby oil. Nakazawa and MJF both conduct themselves with a very strong sense of character so they’re standing out already. Actual Hakan reference from Excalibur so his stock is only getting higher.

The battle royal problem is already emerging. When there’s not a lot of guys in the ring, it’s everybody taking a nap while the spot happens. This puts a lot on the spot to be enough to distract me from this fact but starting with the funny stuff is a good plan as it gives the violence somewhere to go.

MJF looks like Colt Cabana fucked Matt Striker.

Nothing is happening for a long time and it’s boring. They need to be filling the ring at this point. Pacing means you can’t have these guys doing the fun shit yet, but that means I’m watching MJF and Simp Haig coordinate stomping. There’s neither character nor athleticism and there’s not much left of wrestling if you take those two away.

Hey more people.

Brian Pillman Jr with a mullet that makes him look like Ricky Morton Jr, a guy called Isiah Cassidy who is swiftly kicked over by Brian, and Jimmy Havoc. Havoc looks exactly like this emo guy I met in Melbourne who kept trying to talk me into a threesome with him and a girl that I was 100% sure didn’t exist. Oh, and Joey Janela, who looks like a last-minute Macho Man costume. Clustered entrances like this are novel, and at least they’re doing something with it, but this is still change for its own sake as opposed to whether it meaningfully benefits the format.

Hey, it’s Stan, or Sean Spears, another WWE refugee. He hits the ring and the wrestlers are allowed to start being interesting again. There is a very good argument to be made that AEW can’t just absorb every underused WWE guy, but it is nice to see the audience getting into Spears.

Man, they’re making up for it being empty earlier. Another minute and now another full pile-o-dudes heading down. Jungle Boy is the son of the recently deceased Luke Perry, which is odd for people of my age bracket because Luke Perry was the name synonymous with hot dudes for ages. His kid looks like a Tarzan twink in a gay escort catalogue. This isn’t a bad thing, though, as it’s nice to see genuine youth on a roster. It’s particularly helpful here as he’s countering the age of Billy Gunn and, of all people, fucking Glacier. As a huge Mortal Kombat fan, I was so into Glacier back in the day, so this is nice.

An orange guy who seems to care about Isiah emerges with them along with oh my fucking god what is that!

Acey looks like Kirby swallowed Samoa Joe. I hope he’s athletic fat and not just one of the barely-ambulatory physical oddities that promotions like to add to the roster. What a mighty Chungus! I bet he’s the athletic fat so I’m looking forward to him pulling out a moonsault or something.

Joey Janela sells a Jungle Boy headscissor take down like RVD sells a piledriver and things are picking up a little.

I know the rules are “over the top rope” but I still feel that letting anyone on the outside for too long clutters the match visual. Outside the ring is where the losers are, having to keep track of who went out but not the bad way is poor storytelling. The most we can get out of it is the “guy sneaks back in” bit which is the kind of shitty cliché AEW said they were avoiding.

Nak is out and GLACIER HAS ICE MIST! It should have been blue or something, right now it looks like he’s just HHH spitting in people’s faces. AEW’s reality level is veering more toward the mixed variety, with New Japan as the sport and Lucha Underground as the comic book as poles. I like this blend, and it can be managed perfectly well as Undertaker demonstrates.

Okay. In the space of 3 seconds we have: a plot relevant event of Glacier being tossed and a confrontation between MJF and Billy Gunn; and a novelty spot of Janela having a lit cigarette stapled to his head. The camera doesn’t catch that second one which is staggeringly bad production. If someone stapled something to my head to get attention, I’d want people to see it. Also, it should have been something else. Janela lighting a cigarette in the middle of a battle royal is dumb unless nicotine is his spinach. They’re still looking at Billy Gunn’s foreskin-y head when I hear the staple gun go off again and a woman scream.

Here come the spade – HOLY SHIT THE ORANGE BLACK GUYS DID A LEAPING TOP ROPE HURRICANRANA TO CUTTER! Again, this happens in the bottom right corner. This is a good example of fault within structure and not fault inherent to structure. Napping wrestlers while stuff happens is effectively inevitable. Not being organised enough to have your cameras on major spots isn’t.

I’m a fan of Luchasaurus from his Lucha Underground days so it’s nice to see him. I—okay someone’s angry aunty is barrelling down the ramp like they’ve just seen someone in the ring attempt to vaccinate a child.

Apparently that’s Marko Stunt and he’s 5’2. Sonny Kiss looks like the kind of guy who makes being gay their whole character while simultaneously railing against having characters defined by their sexuality. Like if Russel T Davies wrote a Bayard Rustin biopic. And everyone’s favourite brain damaged uncle, Tommy Dreamer. Neat-o.

Stunt is a fascinating height and weight combo. Like, clearly not a midget, but doesn’t look like an adult at all. It’s legitimately like watching someone bash a child from the outer suburbs.

Acey had been standing still for so long he blended into the horizon, but the suicide dive was nice. Luchasaurus rolls into the ring and literally lays there. This doesn’t stand out enough to look like anything deliberate, as though he were playing possum or something, it just looks like he edits a later spot into a part where it makes no sense.

Tommy Dreamer lobbing bin parts into the ring and hitting Luchasaurus is fun, gives a sense of genuine chaos as opposed to a bunch of separate theatre sports groups trying not to bump into each other. Now everyone lines up for their concussion syndrome.

As someone who loathes Vince McMahon’s bodybuilder fetish, it’s good to see a lot of smaller guys running around AEW. That said, Luchasaurus is a good and necessary counterpoint. No behemoths can be as dull as only behemoths, and some of my favourite matches are between different sizes. Case in point, the double choke slam on Private Party, watching a big guy try to do that to two also big guys is always sloppy.

Adam Page looks like if Tumblr drew Stone Cold. I know very little of him, aside from some NJPW work, and nothing has really stood out. Knowing that AEW intends to make him something big ups the expectation. His run to the ring and immediate dominance are a good opportunity to explore the difference between a story demonstrating something using its tools and storytellers relying on external tropes.

The two main tools wrestling has are the wrestlers and the commentators, what one does the other can elaborate on. Page comes down and starts beating people left-right-and-centre, why? He is not visually different, he’s not huge or anything that would otherwise set him apart and explain this, even Dreamer had his bin lid. Page even has a limiting factor, an injury, so we need to know why he can do so well.

Is it because he is the last guy out? Makes perfect sense, but the commentary doesn’t mention this to confirm it as part of the narrative, so we’re left with a guy doing the Top Tier battle royal clean-out just because. The audience never sees a reason why Page is this big deal, and the commentary never supplements our ignorance. He doesn’t even have the external record, like Moxley, to lean on. AEW hasn’t told us why Page is the new IT guy, there just has to be one and we know he’s been picked. This is narrative structure, trope, doing work that storytelling tools should be doing.

Conversely, Moxley and Juice Robinson have an upcoming match in NJPW and the first thing that fed did was address the fact that the pair fought when their new big guy, Juice, was an NXT jobber. Juice addressed this himself, via NJPW’s more sport like interview narrative tool, and stressed that prior jobbings were irrelevant, as he has trained very hard and changed a lot since then. This is using established narrative elements to explain why someone who was a jobber in one fed is a high tier guy in another, and why an upcoming match will be more competitive than prior ones.

This Page thing stands out a little more as he’s a friend of the people who run everything, and so far, that’s my biggest alarm going into AEW. Anything even veering in the direction of All Elite Wrestling being All About the Elite Wrestling is a concern.

Jungle Boy is trying to choke Chungus and it reminds me of the time I RNCd a huge Samoan neighbour.

Marko Stunt’s whole career is going to be getting thrown very long distances and I hope he makes tonnes of money doing it.

There’s gotta be a no-armed wrestler we can tape the no leg guy to. Dustin Thomas does a 619 and a neat slingshot 450, but the fact remains that there’s no viable way to have him be more than a novelty act.

Another storytelling thing, how does Brandon Cutler have the wherewithal to reverse Gunn AFTER he’s eaten a finisher? No-sells are okay in the tiniest of doses and for very specific narrative reasons. Cutler’s just some guy and he’s fine so I suppose the Assman’s ass ain’t what it used to be.

Per the Page point, Sleepy the Zen Commentator emphasises that MJF is doing well because he is a crafty opportunist. This fits with his dickbag persona and so now we have a meshing of personality and combat tactics which leaves us with a well-rounded wrestling character. I know what sort of things to expect from MJF, how he may structure situations and matches, or which ones may benefit him. These are proper storytelling tools.

Janela goes through a table in the best way possible. It looks like it was head first but I think he’s okay so it’s fine. While I’m on them, these tables are great. Wrestling tables run the gamut from Lucha Underground’s gimmicked and delicate ones to any rando indy fed using a veteran hall’s slab of oak that doubles as a bomb shelter. These are a great mix, solid looking but they break well.

Sonny Kiss gets Dreamer in a move I can only describe as the “Ha Ha, You’re Gay”, so I may have been wrong about some aspect of my earlier impression of him.

WRESTLING CANON ADDITION! Gay guy butts are the butt equivalent of Samoan guy heads. If you are hit by one, you lose, and even a straight butt user like Taguchi loses if his butt connects with gay butt.

I don’t know what an Orange Cassidy is or why he’s even in this match, but he amused me. Commentary explained him and his character better than they did Page.

Havoc bites fingers like the Melbourne emo tried to suck mine and we’re down to the meaty end of the royal, the characters who matter. See, this is how a battle royal can be used to create that upper tier, I now see these 4 guys –MJF, Luchasaurus, Havoc, and Page—as being the logical better guys by virtue of having fought their way to the most attention. Page still hasn’t leapt out though, as MJF has been in this thing from the start while he’s been napping for most of the 5 minutes he’s been in the ring.

Havoc busting out a shoryuken is neat. Luchasaurus’s low bridge was slow and lame.

Page’s buckshot lariat is a great move and something that would work better without a supposed knee injury. I want to emphasise, I have no issue with Page or his push. This is about me watching AEW and trying to learn about what it is and who is in it via what is presented. Page won with an injured leg, so I suppose he is pretty tough and has a lot of willpower. But he was the last entrant so he kind of had it easy. I know more about the character and wrestling styles of the not-quite-midgets, Twinkzans, gays, and various hardcore legends than I do the guy who won the thing.

Overall, the battle royal lived up to expectations. The modified rules are pointless and should be jettisoned. Change is only worthwhile if it adds anything and entrance interference is the sum gain from a needlessly complicated rule change so it’s not worth it. The match itself was the standard mix of fun spots and naptimes, but the overall plot arc of making Page the next title challenger was stunted by very poor characterisation.

Up next, Sammy Guevara and Kip Sabin. I have no idea who these two are so I’m looking forward to it. But that’s a tomorrow story.

By Gabe.

Love in the Time of Solanum

Love in the Time of Solanum

A sandwich made with some kind of new, proprietary deli meat is always going to be seen in the shadow of the meat, with the experience of it as a whole obscured by the specific elements that compose it. ZombiU is in a similar situation, as part of the release crop of WiiU games it shoulders the burdens of being a “proof of concept” for a console with a lot to prove and standing as a game on its own. In the maelstrom of release mania, this is no small task.

Were I to draw something and hang it up with no other thought than self-expression the honesty of that act carries through. Were I to loudly proclaim that I was making art, draw something, label it “ART” then demand it be accepted as such the resulting picture, even if it were identical to the first, would be far more divisive. In this respect I think there is great value in returning to things once the hubbub has died down and ZombiU, with its unique approach to death, is worth taking a look at with post-hubbubian eyes.

Death of a player character in a game has never been an easy sell. When the structure of one’s interaction with a work is built on the idea that death is a failure, making death a part of the character’s story arc presents a number of inherent difficulties. Make it one of a number of possible endings and it will just be seen as a failure, the typical “bad ending”, meaning players will view it as a negative result of their improper play and invalidate it as an in canon element of the plot. In Resident Evil for instance, it is possible to let Jill/Chris and Rebecca get killed at various points in the game but this is not seen as the “actual” story by either players or Capcom wholly negating any emotional relevance it may have had.

The other alternative is to limit player control or remove it entirely with the endings of Red Dead Redemption and Mafia being respective examples of both. One puts you in a circumstance that it is a programmed impossibility to fight your way out of and the other is just a cutscene. The first time I encountered the former was at the end of the freeware Doom demo when you are teleported to a dark space filled with things that kill you. As a child I was certain that there was some way to avoid it and, much like the more recent generation’s attempts to revive Aeris, I pissed way too much time trying. To my young mind there simply had to be a way out because that was how games work, if you are dying you are doing something wrong and this trained mentality in gamers is what negates the programmed fail point as a viable character end. Ultimately, both are about taking control from the player and this never feels right. Like a character getting an off screen death in a viewed medium like film or TV, control removal is something that is so antithetical to gaming that it’s never really been pulled off. 

ZombiU works around this by changing a traditional aspect of gameplay/story interaction. Your in-game avatar is not the protagonist but the agency of the protagonist and dividing the vessels for player ego projection allows for an interesting and effective approach to the problem of in-game death. The story is not one of someone surviving, it is a story of someone trying to help other people survive and the result is that you are always playing as a supporting character. This is not a choice without risk, by doing this the creators relinquish a significant degree of control over the players emotional engagement with the game. After all, any circumstance where enjoyment of something is predicated on the player’s “correct” interaction with it is one where a player can have a perfectly valid negative experience. The flip-side is that when it does work it tends to be more fun than the ‘cheap pop’ of being the protagonist. Like the saga of Me, Firstarino and Supercoon.

I’m a raging egomaniac so no matter how much of my ego goes where in a division each side gets a lot. I genuinely didn’t want Firstarino (the clever name I’d given my first guy) to die because, even though it would have had negligible impact on game progress, I had projected enough to care about him. By the two hour mark, having killed and raided other player characters who’d not survived as well as myself, Firstarino and I had bonded so even though he was essentially just “a life” in a game with infinite of said, I didn’t want him to go. But go he did, in a suitably epic showdown involving a mounted gun that I stupidly didn’t reload. I lost a life, just a life and my first one at that but I felt bad about it, cursing my own stupidity and turning the game off to think about something else for a while. Upon returning I was introduced to my new life, a big, black security guard. Awesome, Supercoon.

Permit me to explain.

 The Supercoon phenomenon was something some friends and I noticed while watching loads of shitty 80’s and 90’s action films (and you’ll see it in a lot of games too). Most of them have some vast African American killbeast whose badassedness was what we could only assume was a misguided attempt at a positive portrayal. That negative/damaging stereotyping can involve superficially positive traits, “all Asians are good at math” for instance, didn’t occur to these filmmakers as they lauded a man, descended from slaves bred for physical utility, for his physical strength. This irony led us to dub the characters Supercoon, in a deliberate parody of any attempt at racial sensitivity that, due to a fairly basic misunderstanding, backfires wildly.

So in he and I stride to take on the zombie hordes with our mighty strength and righteousness honed through years of oppre—shit he’s dead already. Seriously, he lasted 20 fucking minutes and most of that was backtracking to get to where I had previously died. Now this death stung and serves as an example of what I mean about user controlled engagement. This was frustrating through nothing else than my own personal history. This character had no special background or relevance as far as the game was concerned and hadn’t done anything or been around long enough to otherwise care about. Despite this, his death had a significant effect on me. Supercoon was about to fuck shit up (in the good way), fucked shit up (the bad way) and got eaten. Later characters had similarly short lives but they didn’t matter as much because of what I had projected into the game.

Ultimately, as this is completely non-quantifiable element, it is hard to review its efficacy objectively but as it has the potential to give me such experiences I always appreciate the attempt. That and I never give anything approaching a shit when Mario falls down a hole, or I need to re-load a character after dying. By splitting the narrative and gameplay focus and by giving the ultimately meaningless agents a small degree of personality your in-game lives become more than just a number beside an “x”. This makes death relevant beyond a simple GAME OVER, while still maintaining direct player control. It’s something that I’ve not experienced (at least that I can draw to mind now) and it adds a unique element that makes it worthy of a look.

By Gabe

From Heaving Mounds to Exploding Ovaries: A Brief History of Women’s Porn

From Heaving Mounds to Exploding Ovaries: A Brief History of Women’s Porn

At first glance, Jane Austen and noted Australian actor Jack Thompson’s penis don’t have an awful lot in common and there was a time when I would have felt the same way. When given carte blanche to select your own topic to write on, the thinking writer shoots for a pleasant combination between the least amount of work and the most amount of fun. Naturally, I selected pornography as my area of focus. Porno. Even saying the word is enough to make your mouth feel dirty and the images it calls to mind are hardly any cleaner. It is mass consumed and yet mass condemned, so powerful a loathing does it summon that it has been able to unite both fundamentalist Christian and radical feminist on the matter of how a woman should be depicted. No small miracle.

I say woman and not man because everyone knows that porn is for men. Say porno and people picture some guy, crankin’ it to some girl. Men too unattractive to get laid, hunched over a screen, shuddering away and the complex ways this mental image constructs the world is a very interesting subject. But it’s also a subject that’s been done to death, go Google it, I’ll wait.

You’re back! Great. So that got me to thinking, the modern world and its myriad wonders has brought with it a slow deconstruction of many old beliefs about the differences between the sexes. Once indisputable facts are now routinely mocked absurdities but one of the last to fall (or at least, start to lean a bit) is the axiom that porn is a guy thing. Pornography made by and/or for heterosexual women (gay and queer porn is an essay of its own) is, in this post-Sex and the City era, less of a surprise but it is not as recent as one might think. The history of women’s porn, the forms it has taken and the means by which it is accessed, parallel the emancipatory history of the western woman and provide interesting perspectives on the process. Separated (like women’s history itself) into pre and post Women’s Liberation, the following will take you from Reformation England to the Internet and explain just what Jane Austen, and Jack Thompson’s penis have in common.

 

Part 1. 

A divorce, an industrial revolution, and a pair of publishing houses walk into a bar: Romance novels and the Vaginal Photoplethysmograph.

Henry VIII and Sexual Assault: The Birth of Romance.

The mid 1500s were a pretty happening time in Briton. Henry VIII had just created the Church of England and sense of “affective individualism” was present in the new church’s message.  Preachers were defining marriage in a new way, one that stressed mutual love, comfort, and support. Marriage was the single decision a woman would make in her life and now there was a social system supporting her concern for good treatment.  This new social reality became the groundwork for the earliest “romances”.

 I put the term “romance” in the inverted commas of irony because the plot of the first major novel, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: Virtue Rewarded (1740), was essentially a fifteen year old girl haggling with her rapist/employer over the details of her marriage contract.  Believe it or not, this was remarkably empowering within its social context — a theme that tends to follow the romance genre — and the book was an absolute hit, spawning theatrical adaptations, unauthorized sequels and even merchandise.  This book would contain most of the tropes which have come to define the romance genre as it was expanded on in now famous fashion.

A modern dismissal of the romance genre is that it’s pop but, like Pamela, literary classics like Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847), and American “domestic sentimentals” like E.D.E.N Southworth’s The Hidden Hand (1859) were the hugely successful pop-culture of their day.   They fed a new market of literate, middle-class women. Women whose home industries had been eliminated by the industrial revolution and whose participation in society was entirely restricted, women with nothing to do but read.  By the late 1800’s a majority of English readers were female and they were reading about one of the few areas of their lives they could exercise some control.  Into this new publishing world, stepped Gerald Mills and Charles Boon.

Mills and Boon, Harlequin, and Hiding Your Porn in Plain Sight

Mills and Boon (M&B) had both worked for a British publishing firm, Methuen, as education director and sales manager respectively, before turning a shared 1000 pounds into their own publishing house in 1909.  Their first published book, Sophie Cole’s romance, Arrows from the Dark (1909) was released along with a variety of other fiction and non-fiction lines.  By 1914, Arrows from the Dark, had sold 1,394 copies and other Mills and Boon romances like Beatrice Grimshaw’s When the Red Gods Call (1911), and I.A.R. Wylie’s The Daughter of Brahma (1912) were blockbusters of the time.  Following the financial crisis of the late 20s and Mills’ death in 1928, the company’s bleak financial position forced them to drop anything not wildly profitable.  Fortunately, romance fiction was wildly profitable and this growth period saw the development of their marketing by genre (instead of the traditional author) and the mail order catalogue sales system.  They were (and still are) an untouchable juggernaut of publishing which is why they caught the eye of a small Canadian publishing firm, Harlequin Books.

Incorporated in 1949 in Wiinipeg by Jack Palmer, Doug Weld and Richard Bonnycastle, Harlequin Books began much like M&B, publishing whatever they could get their hands on.  Amongst fascinating titles like Lady, That’s My Skull were reprints of various British authors, including some attached to Mills and Boon.  Richard Bonnycastle took control of the company in 1957 and a year later he owned the entire business along with his wife, Mary.  By 1964, Harlequin had been republishing Mills and Boon for 7 years while maintaining other lines. Mary Bonnycastle, working as editor, saw great potential in the popularity of their romances and dedicated Harlequin to the genre exclusively.  A mail-order system and advertising focused in supermarkets, women’s magazines and daytime television saw Harlequin’s profits skyrocket and in 1971 the company purchased Mills and Boon.  Together they were the most profitable publisher for the next decade and are still a dominant force today.  You’re probably wondering when this is going to be about porn and not the minutes of Harlequin’s most recent corporate meeting. But that’s the thing, romance fiction IS porn, it just doesn’t look like it when porn is defined by magazines that spell jugs with two gees and a zed.

Men and Women can be Different: The Science of Sit-Com Stereotypes

A 2009 study on how emotional and cognitive absorption affected women’s responses to erotic material found “that the degree to which a woman becomes absorbed in an erotic stimulus, such as a film excerpt, may have a substantial impact on her subsequent feelings of sexual arousal.”  A 2014 study, using a less-than-pleasant sounding vaginal photoplethysmograph, found that “The strongest single predictor of subjective arousal was sexual arousal thoughts” and not raw external stimulus. Carol Thurston cites similar studies when she states that, “…the brain is involved physiologically and exerts more control in the sexual arousal of females than in males” and that “if there is any single label that fits these romances today it is female sexual fantasy”.  Early forms of “pure” or “sweet” romance were known for “stopping at the door” but just because nothing carnal was described doesn’t mean nothing carnal was suggested.  Early works, like 1928’s The Dancing Boy, would use lines like, “The fact of his love was a spar she clung to when the wild seas engulfed her” to craft effectively erotic moods.  And, as the aforementioned studies show, these moods are enough. When interviewed on the subject, a woman going by the name of Gil said “Like reading Mills and Boon… there are some of those… that are really sexy… y’know, no sex but… like you can take it further than they go.”  As female sexual response differs from the male, so too does the means by which one stimulates it. If you have to go to the shop and you live down the road from it, the directions to it are easy. If you live further away and want to avoid traffic, the directions are more complicated. The point is, men live close to the shop.

Pre-1970s Harlequin editorial guidelines specified sweetness and in 1982 industry giant Barbara Cartland came out heavily against racier material saying, “…all decent women dislike pornography. It’s degrading and humiliating and like me it makes them feel sick. To me, it’s appalling that so many well known (sic) authors, especially in America, who write very well should think that sex must be included.”  While overt erotic material was on the horizon, even the sweet books like Cartland’s were a form of porn as, “The romantic intensity of Harlequins — the waiting, fearing, speculating — are as much a part of their functioning as pornography for women as the more overtly sexual scenes”. Feminist critic Ann Snitow praised romances, saying, “…a strength of the books is that they insist good sex for women requires an emotional and social context that can free them from restraint” and this was manifest in the ways the books changed with the times.  Class and divorce themes (1910s), soldiers returning with psychological scars or not at all (WW1 & 2), finding employment (1950s), and balancing independence with love (1970s) were all used as Pamela Regis’ defined “social barriers” to be overcome.  As the social reality of women changed, their pornography followed suit, and the 1970s were to bring the biggest change yet.

Peter Parsi described Harlequins as “…pornography for people too ashamed to read pornography” but the Women’s Liberation movement was to challenge that shame.  Harlequin’s initial squeamishness about overt sex, Mary Bonnycastle was not a fan, quickly fell by the wayside after sales figures and reader polls indicated its demand.  In the early 80s, romance fiction subdivided into myriad new lines of varying subjects and degrees of eroticism which remain to this day, but what if Jane Austen and her ilk didn’t do it for you? Men had magazines, why not women? Jack Thompson’s penis, or lack thereof, was about to become the metaphor for the other side of women’s porn.

Part 2

Gal’s Mags, The Internet, and a Phallus-y Fallacy: The Modern Woman and Porn.

 

Enough to Put a Woman Off: Men Attempt Women’s Porn Magazines and the Debate over Dongs

Radical philosophical and political movements, through their challenging of taboos, coincide with booms in porn and the Women’s Liberation movement of the early 1970s is no different.  In 1972, Cosmopolitan gave the world the first nude male centrefold in the forms of Burt Reynolds for the US market and Jack Thompson for the Australian.  But unlike the exposed centrefolds in men’s porn, there was no subtle shot of shaft, no tasteful glimpse of glans, no penis at all. Some readers demanded more and the reaction to the missing manhood prompted the start of women’s pornographic magazines like Playgirl (1973), Viva (1973), and For Women (1992).  It also brought to the fore the great question around women’s porn, do women like to look at the male form?

Writing in response to feminist academic discussion on the question, Janice Galloway would declare “Of course the penis is erotic!” and that her love of “the silky smoothness of penis-skin” shouldn’t make her any less of a feminist.  Jessica Davies would contrarily assert that “The whole idea of the magazine is alien to the female psyche. You simply cannot role reversal the centrefold concept, put it on news-stands and expect women to buy it.”   Theses quotes summarize the divide in opinions on women’s porn and the readership was similarly split. Some women enjoyed the pornography and wanted more, others enjoyed the informative, social sexual discussion the magazines provided.  Appealing to both at the same time was a puzzle beyond their publishers, so each magazine peddled itself as though purchasing it was a feminist act.  There were problems with this assertion.

That each magazine was published by a man – Playgirl by Douglas Lambert, Viva by Bob Guccioni, and For Women by Richard Desmond – and that each of those men had started out and still produced men’s porn were facts which critics used to hammer each magazines’ supposed feminist credentials.  The pictorials were described by some readers as, “…mediated through a male consciousness of what female desire is and female eroticism is” and, despite female photographers, they lacked a defined women’s aesthetic and were often lifted from gay photoshoots.  Subsequently, the history of these magazines was brief. Viva folded after only 5 years, For Women lasted 8 and Playgirl has undergone a variety of changes, most recently having shifted to a gay male focus.  In spite of a stated desire by many women, and the honest critiques of the pictorials, the failure of these magazines was seen as a final proof that women and “porn” porn don’t mix. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

Ladyboner: noun, “an erect clitoris; by extension, a state of arousal or sexual desire in a woman”

Clarissa Smith argued that women do have sexual responses to images of men but, “The difficulty lies in attempting to understand those responses within theoretical frameworks that dispute the existence of such responses…”  A great challenge the magazines faced was that this framework made each magazine purchase the equivalent of taking a side, nobody ‘accidentally’ buys porn, so each magazine tried to market itself as the purchase of a little slice of equality.  Unlike men, women could never casually consume porn, and this inequality characterized early understandings of women’s porn. Things have changed. The Internet has brought everyone together anonymously, and women’s porn, along with old ideas about it, have exploded. Only guys can be gross? A comment by a female user on an internet picture of Daniel Craig reads “I just want to lick him, just once…..”, and that was one of the polite comments.  The Internet’s capacity to cater to niche markets in ways a magazine never could has allowed the disparate communities to build their own spaces, and build they have.

The modern woman’s porn landscape represents a fascinating synthesis of everything which has come before it. The written word is as popular as ever, erotic fan fiction’s writer base is approximated to be 78% (based on self-reported gender) female with 30 million stories uploaded to popular site, Wattpad.  Fanfic writers cover just short of literally everything and have even attained fame with 50 Shades of Grey being a modified collection of Twilight fanfiction.  Reddit communities like Ladyboners and Chickflixxx allow women to ogle the male form and share links to/discuss porn that suits their needs. True to the research, interpersonal connection and mutual pleasure are as important as the basic sexual mechanics. Noted director for women’s porn production company, New Sensations, summed up as much in a note to his (female) writer, Jacky St. James: “Don’t write porn. Write a real story that has sex.”  And if that’s not you, don’t worry, the internet has you covered. Yaoi (gay male Japanese manga) fiction is just one example of a newcomer which has exploded in popularity with women’s interests in feminized male forms creating fascinating new perspectives on female sexuality.  Everything from pregnant men to clown porn, whatever it is, you’ll find it on the Internet.

Ann Snitow mused that, “…one can not (sic) resist speculating that equality between the sexes as child rearers (sic) and workers might well bring personal feeling and abandoned physicality together in wonderful combinations undreamed of in either male or female pornography as we know it.”  I like to think that the Internet is helping that along. A woman’s consumption of modern porn has been split between camps which both made something as personal as sexuality a public statement of identity. The anonymity and connectivity of the Internet has finally given women the freedom to explore pornography privately, and find whatever tickles their fancy. Rather than looking at porn as women, they can look at it as a woman.

Conclusion

The history of women is one of emancipation as thinking beings with agency, and this is reflected in the history of women’s porn. Romance novels evolved from social changes to marriage attitudes and wrote (still write) to the experiences of women over two centuries, providing social commentary, titillation, and a good read. Women’s Liberation brought with it a false start in the form of magazines which homogenized the breadth of female interests into too narrow a band but what magazines started, the Internet finished. A digital woman can be who she wants to be, explore new things, and find communities of similar folk. Whether it’s something like Jane Austen’s words or more along the lines of Jack Thompson’s penis, it’s your choice, just make sure to delete your browser history.

 

By Suave Lovegood

Critical Art

Critical Art

There’s guy who turned condoms full of his own shit into dildos to fuck himself with before eating them. There’s a community of people who inject saline into their scrota to make them as large as possible, getting dudebro competitive about it even as they lose the use of their penis. You know those colourful push pins? The ones you stick things to cork boards with? I read a blog by a woman who stuffed her vaginal cavity with those and then sewed her outer labia shut. These people weren’t being tortured by some weird marionette with a point to make, they did it because they liked it.

Like is the whole, the ineffable thing which is greater than the sum of otherwise identifiable parts. Mr Shit Dildo could sit and talk to you for hours to explain why his hobby is great but it would still add up to an incommunicable like. But, so armed with an understanding of what makes a good shit-dildo, you’d be able to point out a quality one when you saw it.

Art and creative works in general are a little less niche than shit-dildos but the principle remains the same. Exploration of the components of art allows for greater understanding of its production. Some things, like a high-quality shit dildo, just aren’t your thing though. These situations are why we have critique and review.

The explosion of text response writing that followed the Internet has caused a kind of speciation, where the once synonymous critique and review have now become discrete entities. Like a toilet and a sink, each is quite similar and, while neither is inherently superior, using one for the other’s purpose will lead to a mess. There is value to both, though, and since my degree on exactly this meaningless bullshit arrived recently, I figured I’d clear this up a little in the manner befitting a man of my credentials: blogging to the birds.

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