Please read the first two parts if you haven’t, all previous disclaimers about content apply, and so on and so forth. This will be the last post in the series, and probably one that will generate at least some controversy given the subject matter (the setup in the last post already has, really).
Orestes Bottoming and Pylades Topping: Subverted Power Dynamics and Problems of Idolization
It is both annoying and oddly appropriate that the most popular Les Mis slash pairing should be the one to have inspired so much debate: whether it could exist on more than a symbolic level, how it could form before (or even without) their pivotal death scene, whether it could even be a remotely healthy relationship considering how dysfunctional it is in canon, and of course who’s screwing whom. As much as most of what I said regarding Enjolras and Grantaire in part 2 still applies to E/R, this ship has been represented so variously that it warrants individual consideration. Bottom Enjolras is common enough to label it the norm for Combeferre and Courfeyrac (especially the latter since, you know, Courfeyrac), and since Grantaire’s name is a sequel and almost no one cares about shipping him outside of E/R I just had to slap a “Like Bahorel but…” sticker on him and call it a day. E/R, by comparison, is just one big symbolic headache.
Before I go on I should specify that this post will be approaching E/R as a romantic relationship (canonically improbable as that is) and not as PWP material. The kink meme has multiple examples of Enjolras willfully giving up control, often with BDSM involved, to Grantaire (or any number of other Amis), and conversely several fics exist that take Grantaire’s absurd servility before Enjolras to its sexual extreme. While it’s a general rule of fandoms that people are more forgiving of characters being OOC when porn is involved, neither of those scenarios is relevant to this discussion for exactly that reason. As hard as it can be with this pairing, I’d like to keep them as much IC as possible.
When it comes to the top!E/bottom!R arrangement, my biggest problem lies not with top Enjolras (as might be expected given how I like to emphasize his androgyny) but rather with bottom Grantaire. One of the widely held beliefs regarding E/R - at least among Brick fans - is that fics should recreate as best as possible the symbolic significance of “Oreste à jeun et Pylade ivre” (hereafter OFPD, using the standard English translation), though preferably without the bullets or the random Crucifixion imagery. Grantaire in OFPD is doing what he has never been able to do before - raise himself up to Enjolras’s level and profess belief in something (even if it’s not the same kind of belief) - and Enjolras is able to acknowledge the gesture and probably even look on Grantaire as an equal just before their deaths. Multiple Brick fans have previously railed against E/R fics (or even stagings of the musical) that have Grantaire criticizing or even insulting Enjolras in an attempt to break down his perceived naïveté and bring him down to the same level of cynicism. I agree with this criticism and find fics with a doubting Enjolras really irksome, but I still think it’s funny that even people who so thoroughly misunderstand the relationship dynamic of E/R know that the two need to be able to meet ideologically somewhere.
This is why Grantaire bottoming for Enjolras bothers me, because it’s all too easy for it to reinforce Grantaire’s sense of inferiority and his tendency toward idol worship, an unhealthy mindset for any sexual relationship. Furthermore, because Grantaire is the more sexual character of the two he’d be more cognizant of the symbolic associations connected with sexual positions, whereas Enjolras is so detached from the physical that it probably wouldn’t occur to him and, even if he were made aware of it, he wouldn’t care except possibly in the manner I noted in his entry in the last post (that is, he’d want to alternate to preserve a feeling of equality). Top!E/bottom!R, for me, creates an emotionally dangerous setup with Enjolras assuming that simply having sex with Grantaire is an acknowledgement that he considers them equals but with Grantaire still thinking of himself as subservient (and probably enjoying it because it confirms the unhealthy manner in which he wishes to regard Enjolras).
I know that Enjolras’s characterization in sex is more crucial for most of the fandom, and much of this section - how I view bottom Enjolras - is in response to some comments by Despard regarding her problems with Enjolras giving up control even during sex. For this argument I feel that, naughty as it is, it would be worthwhile to discuss bottoming in the context of my own experiences as a bottom. I’m hardly an Enjolras in bed - I resemble the standard fanon Prouvaire more than anything else - but I know from encounters with various tops as well as conversations with other bottoms that the “power bottom”/”sub bottom” distinction I alluded to back in part 1 might be more important than people (even gay men) tend to think. Bottoming is not necessarily a surrender of control, and only the bottom can really decide if surrender is a part of (consensual) sex. There are several positions that allow the bottom to remain in control and even become the more active partner, and there are tops who would prefer to let a bottom ride them while they just enjoy the experience. I’m generally sub, so I like to give up control and therefore prefer more assertive tops. This is the scenario that appears in the overwhelming majority of slash fiction that doesn’t ascribe to fill any sort of specific kink, undoubtedly because most slash is written by and for women and the subconscious reinforcement of heterosexual gender roles is therefore appropriate for the intended audience. Recreating a masculine/feminine dynamic isn’t a priority for most gay men, and if we end up creating one it’s usually only because we enjoy the physical and/or emotional pleasure of being dominant or submissive.
In light of this and given Enjolras’s aforementioned detachment from sexual symbolism, I can’t really see him looking at bottoming as a form of surrender. It requires trust, yes, but so does all sex. I’d be hard-pressed to label my headcanon Enjolras as a power bottom in the conventional sense - that would require a level of sexual assertiveness that is realistically beyond him (unless he undergoes some significant character development first) - but I could see him insisting that Grantaire top him to ensure that R doesn’t fall in the rut of idol worship again but learns to acknowledge himself as worthy by taking an active role in their intimacy. Canon R, in his submissive desperation for attention, would probably have been willing to bottom for Enjolras, so having him top would be a way to break him out of that mindset (at least somewhat; relationship development would have to supply the rest).
As one last note, I should reference a pic on Deviantart that I believe nicely represents the kind of sexual dynamic I envision for E/R. One Fanaticism by kugel-fish (NSFW, as if that mattered at this point) is bottom!E/top!R, but it both reverses the typical spatial dynamic (demonstrating that naming sexual positions spatially can be misleading, but I digress) and keeps intact their pre-OFPD dynamic: Enjolras looks radiant and a little unearthly, and Grantaire is staring up at him in awe. Having Grantaire top, though, gives him an implied agency and thus equality as a finally accepted Pylades. Power(ish) bottom Enjolras also, in my opinion, accounts for that various contradictions surrounding his character, as he can be both savage and Antinous (even if Grantaire makes for a poor Hadrian).