I’ve been mulling this over, and meant to write a long, thoughtful post about it at some point, but instead I’m just barrelling through this.
I used to be very strongly against woobification, but at this point, the anti-woobification brigade bothers me far more. And nothing bothers me quite so much as their mantra of, “what happened to him [it’s virtually always a him] as a child was terrible, but that’s not a defense for what he is as an adult.”
Heading off the let’s-interrogate-why-woobies-are-usually-men tangent: I think popular media tends to focus overwhelmingly on male pain and this is what’s presented to us, for another, fandom tends to home in on it anyway, and for a third, I think it gets judged the way it does because of skeevy masculinity and anti-femininity issues.
Some of the time, sure, it’s an answer to creepy victim-blaming bullshit. And I don’t mean victim-blaming to refer to things like “Korra was going to light Tarrlok on fire” (though I’ve actually heard people say that is victim-blaming), but more like, “Padmé shouldn’t have provoked Anakin into choking her.” But a lot of what I see now is, “people love a character without issuing disclaimers.” You know, we can be fannish about villainous or quasi-villainous characters without constantly reminding our unseen audience that yes, we know they’re bad guys?
Beyond that, though, there’s another layer of … I’m not sure what the word is. Problematic has basically lost all meaning at this point. Let’s say that it bothers me, even though we’re talking about cartoons and space operas and novels and whatnot, because for me there’s a lot of RL background going on.
See, “but now he’s a grown man!” is a simplistic, reductive, often careless response to an incredibly complicated issue. I see it used, constantly, as a basic premise, an assumption that everyone can agree with - or, in many cases, an assumption that everyone should agree with. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard someone say something to the effect of, “well, as long as [character fanbase] acknowledges that [character] should have gotten over it already, I’ll tolerate their affection for different made-up people than the made-up people I like.” And the fanbase says, yes, yes, we understand, woobifying is terrible boo hiss, can we go back to feeling sorry for him now?
You know what? Without qualifiers, that premise is vastly inadequate to my experience of the real world - and what with art reflecting and influencing real life, I can’t leave that at home when I go into fandom. It’s not that childhood trauma always excuses, or even explains, people’s adult selves - I’m not saying that. I’m saying that sometimes it does, and more often, it (merely!) diminishes an individual’s capacity to choose and judge, and now and then, the person is no less responsible than they’d be if they had an idyllic childhood, all varying from person to person and situation to situation.
But some fans talk as if we live in some alternate reality where childhood doesn’t lead into adulthood, where the psychologically resilient are more worthy than those who aren’t. It’s as if all victims of all childhood traumas are created equal and some are strong enough to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and some are weaklings to be despised.
And it’s … okay. My family has a long history of abuse of virtually all kinds, which has been extremely damaging for the last five generations. I’m lucky enough that its effect on me has been mostly indirect; instead, a succession of near-death experiences in childhood (and other things that I don’t care to go into at the moment) left me pretty much a nervous wreck by thirteen. It’s taken the last thirteen years, a full half of my life, with lots of professional help, an intensely close friendship, and a deeply supportive family, to even begin to put myself together. I am not in a position to judge people who don’t manage to overcome their traumas. I’ve worked to get past mine as far as I have, but I’ve also been immensely fortunate.
Moreover, my grandparents and my mother and stepfather and my aunt and her husband and I are all licensed for therapeutic foster care. Because of the vagaries of the system, we - particularly my parents and I - have ended up as a sort of last stop for severely abused children before they’re permanently institutionalized. I’ve had literally dozens of foster-siblings (and whatever my grandparents’ foster-children are to me) at varying levels of functionality: that is, from considerably more functional than I am to considerably less.
A lot of them never got “over” the effects of their abuse. Not because of some inherent weakness, but because they were that damaged by their abuse and then again by the foster-care system. Plenty of my foster-siblings were yanked back into their abusive homes, then back to us, then back to them again, on and on, or jerked between different homes because of some bureaucratic shuffle.
Nearly all of these ones had problems with attachment, long-term judgment, and empathy; many had far, far more. Those who’d never had any kind of ally outside their homes tended to be very badly-off. My grandparents had a foster-son who had been so severely abused that he could scarcely function at all; he couldn’t be justly held responsible for anything.
Most of the time, it’s not quite that extreme, but in every case I know of, trauma impairs people’s faculties in some way, and often for life. And a lot of time, my foster-siblings who seemed to be making the most progress ended up much worse-off when they became adults, particularly the men. The thing is, while we always had to fight for services, it was a fight we had some chance of winning when we were advocating for children (i.e., minors). But once they became adults, virtually everything dried up - and if they’d never been able to get help in the first place? Good luck.
It’s like fandom says. Adults should be over it already. Men, especially, shouldn’t need help (weakness! unmanly!), but women too. I have a foster-sister right now who’s only eleven; it’s taken three years to get the help she has now, and of course we worry about what’s going to happen in seven years. We’ve made the arrangements that we can, but sometimes it’s like there’s a clock ticking down. Two of my foster-sisters almost immediately fell between the cracks when they turned eighteen, and I don’t know what happened to them.
It’s not always some wholly tragic - what’s the phrase? - oh right, sob story. Sometimes people are lucky enough to be naturally resilient. Sometimes they get the help they need. Sometimes they’re able to move on, at least enough to more or less function in the world and be more or less answerable for their actions. Certainly, people who win their psychological battles deserve credit for their own victories; I’m not arguing that this is all passively determined, just that a lot of the dialogue around “tragic pasts” underestimates the extent of their influence.
Our experiences, particularly our experiences as children and our traumatic experiences - and particularly-particularly traumatic experiences as children - can and often do have enormous effects on our psyches. The kind of things that are easily dismissed as “another rough childhood” can damage people. It can damage people enough that they’re never able to get better, it can damage them enough that their personal agency is diminished (in any degree from the slight to the very considerable), it can be one or the other or both or neither or something else altogether.
Trauma, abuse, psychological damage: they’re complex, they’re massive, they’re imperfectly understood, and they vary wildly between individuals. And when we talk about “woobies,” these are the things we’re talking about. The characters are not real, but the kinds of things they experience are. And some dismissive, facile sentence treating the fallout from childhood trauma as if it were Trix Cereal is not remotely sufficient to address them.
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