Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Fandom Classics Part 159: Gods-In-Law

To read the story, click the image or follow this link.

You know how some ethnically/culturally insulting names lose the "insulting" aspect as society changes?  Like, "french toast" was orignally a method poor people used to make stale bread palatable, but now that the food item's lost the connotation of poverty, nobody thinks of it as being a slight against the French?

I find myself wondering if, in the not-too-distant future, "going dutch" will also lose its stigma.  As dating slowly, haltingly moves away from some of its traditional gender norms, e.g. "the man should pay for everything," will "going dutch" stop meaning that the guy's a cheapskate and just become a synonym for "fair?"  Maybe!  Who knows?

Okay, tangent over.  Let's get on to the matter at hand: fanfiction reviews.  My thoughts on Pearple Prose's Gods-In-Law, below the break.

Impressions before reading:  Well, it's Twilestia, which is a ship I find ethically problematic for a whole host of reasons, so I'm not exactly optimistic going in.  Still, this story was recommended to me by two different people who I know also dislike Twilestia (one said the shipping angle was "unnecessary," but praised the story's other elements), so I'm hoping that, if nothing else, this is a lot less abuse-of-trust-y I reflexively fear that it is.

Zero-ish spoiler summary: After a dinner with Twilight's family, Celestia reluctantly agrees to take her marefriend to meet her parents.  However, there's a very good reason why Celestia doesn't talk much about her family...

Thoughts after reading:  For the sake of clarity, let's talk about the reasons why I and many others find Twilestia an inherently problematic romance (at least, when the two are shipped at more-or-less show-contemporaneous ages, as they are here).  There are two primary issues with the ship, which can both be filed under the heading "unequal partnership."  First, there's the age difference: Twilight is a young adult, while Celestia is a thousand years and change old at the bare minimum.  Second, there's the nature of their pre-existing relationship:  Twilight has been Celestia's pupil for a large chunk of her life, and adding a sexual dynamic to a student-teacher relationship... well, hopefully, the reasons why people find that disturbing don't need to be expounded upon.

Both of these, ultimately, come down to "Twilight and Celestia can't/won't/don't see each other as equals," and any Twilestia story which doesn't want to alienate a large chunk of readers is going to need to do something to assuage the concern that Twilight isn't an equal partner--that she doesn't feel like she can say "no" to Celestia, that she still places Celestia on enough of a pedestal that their romance is or could be about doing what she thinks Celestia wants, etc.  Something to ground it firmly as "romance" rather than "statutory rape."

Unfortunately, Gods-In-Law is a virtual how-to when it comes to writing inaccessible Twilestia.  The relationship dynamic is basically "mother-daughter, but with the implication that they're shtupping," and Twilight's primary mode of interaction with Celestia is pleading and wheedling.  Celestia, for her part, treats Twilight more as a tool than as a person (to the story's credit, it at least shows some self-awareness on this front), and shows an unwillingness to communicate with Twilight on any but her own terms which, given their "romance," made my skin crawl.

But even if we were to leave aside the shipping altogether--after all, this is an unambiguous Twilestia story, and there's a certain subset of shippers who find the power dynamics inherent to their relationship a draw rather than a character-destroying cringefest--there are a lot of problems here in terms of concept and execution.  Well, the technical construction is excellent, but there's little else to praise here.  The pacing is awkward, with the first half being light comedy and semi-drunken goofiness before abruptly transitioning to the meeting with Celestia's parents, who can perhaps best be described as a pair of Dr. Manhattans (Dr.s Manhattan? (Dr.s Manehattan?)), except even less self-aware.  The second half is full of pretentious pseudo-ethical "debate," as Twilight gasps out blindingly obvious statements to the awe of everyone involved, and the ending leaves a beyond-sour taste in my mouth.  Without getting too spoilery, it turns out her parents are of the "preventable mass deaths for the greater good" school of villainy, and Celestia reacts to this more as an embarrassing faux pas than as... well, than as them being a couple of genocide-enablers.  Here's an an analogy I used to describe my feelings about it:
Suppose we wrote a story about someone whose grandfather regularly murdered homeless drifters and sold their organs on the black market... but he'd learned to do it during the Great Depression to make ends meet, and the main characters treated it the way Celestia acted at the end of this story. "Oh it's absolutely awful, and I hate how Grampa keeps killing those hobos. But, I mean, I get it. He's just never had to change, you know? Parents are dumb, amirite?"
Celestia comes off as a casual sociopath (which, incidentally, only reinforces some of the Twilestia issues mentioned above), and the portrait painted of Equestria isn't so much "deep," or even simply "darker than the show," as it is "thoughtlessly, reflexively cynical."  That by itself would be unfortunate, but when just a couple thousand words before the narrative was doing things like cracking jokes Celestia's drunken slurring and Cadence and Shining Armour's all-night-and-into-the-morning sexathon, it's a bizarrely ill fit.

Star Rating:

This is one of those stories that doesn't hold up well to more than a modicum of thought.  Even for readers who don't have an issue with the central ship, there's a lot here that simply doesn't work from a narrative, character, or structural standpoint.

Recommendation:  I suppose that if you are the sort of person who finds romantic power imbalances alluring rather than disturbing (or alluring because they're disturbing, for that matter) and don't care about consistent or sensible tone, then this might be tolerable enough.  But I can't think of any group of readers I'd actively recommend this to.

Next time: Martial Bliss, by Skywriter


  1. Wait, "going dutch" has a negative connotation?

    1. Societally, yes. Being seen to get picky about who-pays-for-what carries a stigma of weakness and inferiority.

      It's bollocks, of course, but it exists, still.

    2. I was wondering about the expression itself, not really the concept of splitting the bill. As someone that avoids paying for a date as a matter of principle, this once lead to a rather interesting situation.

      One time a friend of mine wanted me to go on a double date, so I'd stay with the friend of the girl he was interested in. Things were going OK, we didn't really hit off, but it wasn't awkward or anything. It seemed like we both had the understanding we were doing it as a favour to a friend.

      However, when it came the time to pay the bill, my friend became very insistent that we two would split the bill, despite me first, and then my date, insisting on we both paying our parts. Eventually he got really angry, actually shouting at me in the restaurant that he would pay for it all since I had no sense of chivalry. Needless to say, the two girls excused themselves rather quickly after that, and it snipped in the bud his relationship with her. He still blamed me for that years later.

  2. It's weird, I like the idea of two people splitting the bill or paying in turns, but I've always insisted on paying for everything on my dates (and not just when I tried dating women). I guess it comes down to low self-esteem, since I feel like they're already doing me a favor just by showing up, and the least I could do is foot the bill

    It absolutely blows my mind to read your thoughts on this fic and Twilestia in general while knowing you gave The Games We Play four stars. How you saw nothing problematic with the latter is beyond me. Sorry, I know I've complained before, but I just cannot let it go

  3. Thank god Chris is here to say all the things I cannot. :B

  4. I haven't read this story. In fact, I've only read one thing by this author, and I was curious to see if the issues I had with it would carry over. It looks like only one of them did: the pacing. I don't even remember the title, but my biggest complaint was that it ran on for 42 pages of pointless slice-of-life fluff before it even began to define the story's conflict. I was reviewing it for him, or I would have bailed out early on for wondering if it would ever go anywhere. I have no idea whether that's a persistent problem with him, though.

  5. See, this is one of the things that I find so baffling about shipping and shipping fans. This story has been recommended to me quite often as a story and cuts away all the clichés and gets down to the true goodness of this particular pairing. I'm pretty sure on this blog it was held up as an example of Twilestia done right. Or maybe that was on PresentPerfect's blog. It was somewhere recently.

    Anyway, I just find it bizarre that massive amounts of people are willing to overlook significant problems for the sake of the pairing. It's not even a "The storytelling has a few issues, but it really gets the emotion down correctly." It's gushing, enthusiastic support.

    We all have our own biases, of course. If something makes me laugh, I'm much more willing to be lenient toward it. However, I'd like to think I still generally point out to others that something could still use quite a bit of work, even if it is funny. I've heard more times than I can remember that this story is basically perfect. I find that to be a strange mass response. I haven't read this, but just judging from your write-up, why on Earth would anyone think this is a story that would sell people on the ship?

    1. I think that people simple forgive or ignore the problematic aspects of a relationship that they enjoy. In fact, this is quite true in real life. I've personally witnessed some incredibly unhealthy relationships that have lasted decades (with short hiatuses for hospital or jail stays). The desire for a relationship overwhelms any logic.

      Personally, I prefer ongoing train wrecks (ship wrecks?) in fiction, to healthy, normal ones, as long as the author is _aware_ how twisted the ship is. But this story... yeah... not so much. Fine. Everything's fine.

      I am aware that this is far from the common desire for "perfect" pairings, particularly in fanfic. Love Story grossed _way_ more than Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe.

    2. For the record, I was more holding it up as "A fic with Twilestia in it that I inexplicably do not hate".

    3. I meant that the people recommending the story to you on your blog were pretty gushing, not that your review of it was. The review was very begrudging.

  6. I've read this one. It didn't impress me all that much either, but IIRC, I don't think ethical issues were my problem. I'm not sure what was. It's been a while.