Horsin’ Around — Dirk as Physical Aggressor

[The subject of this essay concerns Homestuck, and in particular the fraught relationship between the Alpha kids, and in particular particular the tense codependent threesome of Dirk, Jake, and the Auto-Responder. As such this series features TRIGGER WARNINGS for depictions of fighting in relationships, sexual and emotional coercion, gaslighting, head trauma, philosophical and existential quandaries — and of course, decapitation. Tread carefully.

Bold denotes a link to another essay. If you see a message in Bold, please take my premise for granted, or follow the link and read through the argument presented in that essay before continuing. Homestuck is complex and labyrinthine, and I had to focus discussion of any one part of it somehow. Otherwise we would meander in circles for fucking eternity, and no one wants to end up like Caliborn.

This was my solution, so please try not to counter my points with critiques I may have already answered in another section! Thank you.]

Dirk and Jake’s relationship was, a couple years ago, one of the most controversial and contentious in all of Homestuck. People have very strong feelings about it for a variety of reasons, and in general, the prevailing sentiment that much of the fandom has landed on is that Dirk Strider was abusive, and in some way coerced Jake English into a relationship.

Not too long ago, I agreed with that narrative. But Act 7 sort of revitalized my interest in Homestuck, and over the past couple months I’ve found myself revisiting Act 6 out of a profound sense that I didn’t quite understand all the events that took place in it. Ultimately, I came away from this with a very different reading than the one I’d gotten from engaging with fandom while Act 6 was ongoing.

That realization, paired with [S] Credits, led me to make a tumblr post on my thoughts on Dirkjake that seemed to catch a bit of traction. But as it turns out I had WAY MORE thoughts about DirkJake and about Dirk, specifically.

Which brings us here. This is a four essay series, meant to question the assumption that Dirk Strider is an abuser. I think he is actually a deeply noble character who had little control over what happened during his session, and who is deeply averse to hurting his friends — specifically because he fears he’s capable of it.

Most of the events surrouding Dirk’s ‘abuse’ were either:

A) Mutual misunderstandings between him and Jake, or

B) The actions of Hal/AR, who Dirk had no actual control over.

I know how that sounds to most people in the fandom. I won’t ask you to withhold your judgment, but I will ask that you read on and hear me out. I welcome criticism and questioning because I want to be sure my perspective holds water, and because I plain old like talking about Homestuck.

Each section of this essay series is focused on a different aspect of how Dirk is criticized. This first essay focuses on the Brobot, and how Dirk is commonly parsed as a Physical Aggressor. Successive sections will be as follows:

  • Dirk as Romantic Predator
  • Dirk as Manipulative Puppetmaster
  • Dirk as Unfeeling Robot

If you have questions by the end of this series, or you disagree with my perspective, feel free to tell me about it in the Hiveswap discord where I spend most of my time, so long as you’re willing to be polite and back up your points.

I want to start a conversation here, in a spirit of good faith. Since this series is focused on Dirk, why don’t I lean into his aesthetic trappings a little and get more specific? If I’m lucky enough to have this series begin a true conversation about Dirk Strider and Homestuck in a genuinely new light, I would like it to take place in the spirit of the Socratic method.

I’m going to question several prevalent theories about Dirk, but I am open to the possibility that I’m simply missing something, or reading wrong. Counter my perspective with critique of your own, and I will answer in kind, and if I find that I am moved to your point of view, I will freely admit to it.

I’m not interested in abuse apologism — I’m interested in reaching a cohesive understanding regarding what I believe to be true about Homestuck as a work, and Dirk Strider as a character. If I’m confronted with evidence that my reading is conclusively wrong, I’ll happily reconsider.

Without further ado, let’s begin.

Here’s my thesis:

The Brobot DOES fit into how Dirk (and Jane’s) friendships with Jake were ultimately toxic to his emotional well-being. Just not through its physical aggression. Jake, in fact, genuinely enjoys the Brobot in many ways. It is not a source of anxiety for him except when he talks about it on the novice setting, where it’s caught up in Dirk’s emotional distance and the AR’s harassment.

Letting Jake fight Brobot for the uranium is the only decision that Dirk and the AR ever genuinely agree on, and while everything the AR does romantically and as part of the machinations that lead to Dirk and Jake’s corpse smooch is absolutely toxic, I believe it can be argued the physical trial of tracking down and fighting the Brobot was not.

This is important, because it’s the only element of their relationship that we can say Dirk is wholly responsible for. So before we talk about how Jake feels about this, let’s start this analysis series by dealing with the most morally dodgy act we ever see Dirk himself do — not the AR, or Brain Ghost Dirk, but Dirk Strider.

Let’s start with the moment Dirk sends Jake the Brobot.

And let’s start by admitting that, yes, Dirk comes off pretty dodgy in this pesterlog exchange. I can totally understand why it sets off alarm bells for many. To many people, he reads as deliberately manipulating Jake here — deliberately playing him into accepting Dirk’s training by default.

The thing is, we don’t actually get Dirk’s tone of voice from this exchange. We don’t know how he says what he says. This is a moment when Homestuck’s nature as a story about internet friendship shines through — all we have is text, not meaning or intent, and text can be read in different ways depending on context.

And while I was one of the people to whom Dirk sounded manipulative and coercive years ago, upon my most recent reread, I realized something jarring. Dirk sounded completely different here.

Rather than coldly persuasive and good at distraction, the way Dirk reads to me here is surprised, and caught off guard. When he asks if Jake wants to hear his stories, he sounds resigned and disappointed, rather than calculated and manipulative.

I don’t say that because said reactions would mean he isn’t abusive — abuse is abuse, regardless of the sentiment motivating it, or the intent. I say it because it’s a reading of those lines that I think will surprise most people.

But I do have canon basis for it. To begin with, I don’t believe Dirk meant the Brobot specifically as a training robot. While Dirk is interested in training Jake, or at least takes credit for it, I don’t think the situation is analogous to Bro’s taking the initiative to train Dave against his will. For starters, Jake isn’t the only character Dirk has sent a bodyguard robot.

If the source of the Brobot’s design is Dirk’s interest in martial training, then why does Dirk train Jake, but not Jane? After all, Dirk knows Jane faces as much danger to prepare for as Jake does, and she’s even LESS prepared for it. Are we putting it down to some internalized misogyny in Dirk that goes unacknowledged by the narrative?

Well, we could. But there is a more elegant reason, one that the story sets up for us repeatedly. Dirk actually has every reason to think he has consent from Jake, while he has no such assurance from Jane. Dirk didn’t just decide Jake needed training one day and set out to personally provide it, Jake’s own will be damned. He was trying to let Jake live out one of his biggest fantasies.

To borrow from wikipedia for a moment:

An adventure is an exciting or unusual experience. It may also be a bold, usually risky undertaking, with an uncertain outcome.
Adventures may be activities with some potential for physical danger such as traveling, exploring, … or participating in extreme sports.
The term also broadly refers to any enterprise that is potentially fraught with physical, financial or psychological risk.

By setting the Brobot up to be an elaborate cat and mouse game set across the island, Dirk was trying to set up an adventure scenario for Jake. It entailed risk that Jake could get roughed up, yes — but Jake continually talked about his enjoyment of physical combat and danger. And as the Brobot is always watching, Jake was able to wander his island freely, fairly certain that if things truly get too hot to handle, the Brobot would bail him out.

It’s a sort of echo of Vriska’s attempts to train Tavros with extreme Flarping…with two big differences.

The first is that adventures are one of Jake’s biggest interests, and something that he CONSTANTLY talked up as something he enjoys — not just to Dirk, but to all his friends. The second is that unlike Vriska, Dirk is unwilling to compromise Jake’s actual safety. The Brobot is a defender, and any strifing waits until the area is safe for Jake.

Still, this failure of communication is what Jake refers to when he talks about how he talked himself up as someone he wasn’t. Jake misrepresented himself to his friends as a daring adventurer who enjoys danger, but at 13, he’s actually a sensitive boy who enjoys roughhousing but hates feeling trapped and is intimidated by challenge.

And it’s as much a surprise to Dirk that Jake isn’t down for this as it is to Jake himself. Dirk is, after all, also a 13 year old by the time he sends the Brobot. As a boy who does enjoy challenging himself, he has no reason to doubt Jake when he talks about how much he’d enjoy a scenario this intense.

Still insensitive on Dirk’s part not to immediately respond to Jake’s concerns? Sure. It’s just that Dirk’s not acting like a smooth manipulator here, but rather like a 13 year old boy who was excited to impress his friend, utterly let down by said friend’s response. Even supposing Dirk did choose to prioritize Jake’s response, by that point the Brobot had already been sent, and it’s not clear Dirk could have done anything about it.

Not only that, but this is 13 year old boy who just committed to an action that is a pretty big deal to him. It clearly matters to Dirk that Jake believe him and understand the context he’s living his life in, and it was kind of a leap of faith for Dirk to launch into this confession about living in the future.

Consent is more than just the words yes and no, and in the context of their larger friendship, Dirk had legitimate reason to expect this would be something Jake would consent to, based on Jake’s own word.

Still, absolutely none of this would matter if Jake ultimately really disliked the Brobot, and wanted Dirk to turn it off. If Dirk chose to ignore Jake’s agency and subject him to this impromptu training for three years, I would absolutely agree that that’s abuse, regardless of Dirk’s initial intentions.

After all, someone can have the best of intentions and still create a toxic environment for another. If Jake experienced the Brobot as harm and was now trapped in a situation he couldn’t get out of, then the fact that Dirk meant well only goes so far.

So now that we’ve established why Dirk’s intentions weren’t really as untoward or ruthlessly single-minded as they appeared, we can begin dissecting the more important part of this situation:

How does Jake feel about all this?

A person can have the best intentions in the world, and still ultimately be abusive. If Jake experienced the Brobot as harm and was now trapped in a situation he couldn’t get out of, then the fact that Dirk meant well only goes so far.

But he didn’t. Arguing that the Brobot’s physical violence made Jake feel diminished, scared, or coerced by Dirk only makes any sense if you discard all of Jake’s thoughts and feelings about the situation.

Like Dirk’s apparent insensitivity, Jake’s initial uncomfortable reception to the Brobot is complicated. Because while it’s true he surprises both himself and Dirk with his own lack of enthusiasm for danger and intimidating surprises, he genuinely grows to enjoy fighting the thing, and to rely on it as a physical protector.

What’s more, Dave’s training was counterproductive and left him pretty much terrified of his Bro and his own surroundings. The Brobot, in contrast, only made Jake feel safer on his island.

We’re only privy to Jake’s interactions with the Brobot in two moments: While he’s hurrying to get the bunny to Jade, and when it’s initially set up. All told, that’s a span of only a few hours. And there’s a lot of context for the three years between that aren’t clearly laid out for us. So let’s dig in, and see if the narrative I’ve built up holds any water.

The Jake English we’re introduced to at 16 and the Jake English we see when Dirk sends him the Brobot at 13 are pretty different people. While Jake still talks about how much he loves fisticuffs and adventure, even early on, he doesn’t actually leave his room much when he’s younger — because he’s too scared of the monsters surrounding his island.

And for good reason. One wrong move from Jake could end with him eaten or seriously injured on a monster-infested island with no way to get help.

The Jake we meet at the beginning of the story, however, is altogether different. Jake doesn’t really seem scared of the prospect of going outside at 16. Apparently, he now feels secure enough to consider risks like going outside and getting chased by giant monsters all day an annoying hassle, rather than a serious danger.

Jake is still somewhat scared of the monsters, but he’s used to it. He’s grown up considerably, and his skills have improved to the point he can actually fend them off at times. This is something Jake attributes at least partly to the Brobot’s training, when he’s talking to Jane, but we’ll come back to that a little later.

For now, what I want to get across is that Jake isn’t afraid of the Brobot, like Dave is of Bro, or Tavros of Vriska. He is, at most, inconvenienced and annoyed by it.

If anything, during the events of the game Jake refers to the Brobot as a pest or an unpleasant chore. He’s in a hurry to get the bunny to Jade, so he’d rather avoid wasting his time on fighting it. That, along with the frustration of dealing with the AR’s harassment, are pretty much the source of his consternation discussing the subject.

And it’s worth noting that what Jake says about the Brobot changes depending on who he’s talking to.

It’s true that when he’s arguing with the AR — frustrated with it’s needling, and feeling pressured to get the bunny out on time — Jake is pretty annoyed at the thought of dealing with the Brobot.

But this has as much to do with his frustration at wanting to talk to Dirk and getting fed up with the Auto-Responder’s passive aggression and lasciviousness as it has to do with him not wanting to deal with the Brobot itself. Jake’s primary emotional outburst isn’t about wanting to avoid fighting the Brobot. It’s about wanting to talk to the real Dirk.

And when Jake feels listened to by an understanding friend rather than a manipulator with a pushy romantic agenda, he takes a very different tune towards the Brobot.

Context is important here. When Jake is defensive and annoyed with the Brobot, he complains bitterly about the Brobot. But This is a moment of confidence with Jane. Here, he’s being explicitly more honest than he’s ever been about his feelings surrounding Dirk.

Not to mention this is the moment that sets the stage for Jake to continue being almost APPALLINGLY honest about his relationship with Dirk to Jane, to her detriment, for months.

In this same conversation, he actively complained about the AR as an uncomfortable matchmaker, meaning he is aware there are parts of his relationship with Dirk that are unpleasant. It’s safe to say if Jake had a problem with the Brobot, Jane would have heard about it:

And yet when speaking about the Brobot completely honestly, Jake not only confessed to believing Dirk’s training has made him a better fighter — but says that he finds the whole cat and mouse aspect of the scenario exciting, and likens it to an adventure. Early stumbling block aside, Dirk’s initial intent ultimately proved a success! Though Dirk doesn’t know it, as he likely still counts the Brobot among the things he blames himself for.

Jake’s letter to John also backs up this view of things. It was written after he had the Brobot for years, and in it he excitedly asks John if he likes scrums. Like with Jane, this is a communication he carries out in confidence, that Dirk has no access to or control over.

Doesn’t really sound like a guy who’s experience with physical conflict has been soured by an overly aggressive robot to me. So it seems that as far as it’s functionality as a sparring partner, Jake ultimately enjoys the Brobot as a sparring partner.

But there’s a more intense way Jake appreciates the Brobot. It’s likely it’s biggest impact on Jake’s state of mind is as a protector, or a comrade, if an unpredictable one. The Brobot is an agent with power over Jake’s situation with an interest in looking out for him— something Jake lost completely when he lost his Grandma.

How does the Brobot finally make it’s appearance in the narrative proper, again?

Right. Saving Jake’s life.

Jake doesn’t look particularly intimidated to see the Brobot here. He looks happy and relieved and pleasantly helpless. He looks like a damsel in distress in an action movie, maybe. This is a recurring trend for Jake — ending up in situations that somewhat resemble his movie-inspired fantasies, where he’s commonly cast as the sexually objectified, helpless damsel.

The AR might have been right that Dirk putting himself in danger and letting Jake come to his rescue would have been effective, but as it turns out, Jake has plenty of fantasies about Dirk as a strong protector, too. This is a view of Dirk that I honestly cannot reconcile with the idea that Jake might perceive Dirk, or the Brobot, as a source of discomfort or threat.

And that Jake sees Dirk this way is explicit, because as luck would have it, his fantasies about Dirk coming to save him are literally Jake’s superpower. Not because they’re all he’s capable of — he proves otherwise during the Masterpiece — but simply because there’s nothing else Jake believes in more.

Jake’s absurd reality-warping powers manifest in the absolute most romantic way possible, and it’s a wonder to behold, so let’s investigate Brain Ghost Dirk and see how he serves as a mirror through which we can see Jake’s feelings about the Brobot.

In the retconned timeline, Jake loses basically all of his agency. Aranea dominates his powers for her benefit, and all eyes are on Jake, but he can’t do anything about it. He becomes a literal star — gawked at by all, and reduced to a pawn, a joke, and a hot body in a skimpy outfit, all in one blow.

In the wake of Jane and Brain Ghost Dirk’s sexual aggression and Aranea’s sudden romantic overture and exploitation, it’s literally his worst nightmare, realized.

Obviously, he wants it to stop. But he doesn’t really do much of anything but keep emitting his field of hope — which does nothing but keep Jake safe and make him harder to see clearly — and summon Brain Ghost Dirk.

Think about what it means that this is what Jake chooses. Theoretically, with his powers forcibly unlocked, Jake could do anything: Blast Aranea with laser beams, teleport her into a volcano — whatever, right? The sky’s the limit.

Jake doesn’t do any of that. When the chips come down and Jake needs protection, needs to feel safe, there’s one thing he believes in above all else: Brain Ghost Dirk. That’s the weapon Jake chooses, the ace up his sleeve.

I mean, for fuck’s sake, Brain Ghost Dirk literally calls himself Jake’s boyfriend here, despite the fact that they just broke up, and makes a Princess Bride reference.

Jake’s fantasies are definitely at play here–fantasies he’s admitted to having. When he’s forced to kiss Dirk’s head, he’s sad–not because he has to kiss him, just because he had FANTASIES about how it would play out that reality wasn’t living up to.

Aranea usurps his free will at a time when he already thinks all his friends hate him, and immediately after Dirk broke up with him. But when Jake is at rock bottom, one rock-solid certainty remains in his heart. He has something he believes in more than anything.

And that’s that when he’s in trouble, his best buddy Dirk will come help him out. Save him, and put a stop to anything that makes Jake feel threatened. And Jake trusts Dirk, specifically, even over individuals that matter to Jake who would be much more natural fits for this kind of heroic idealization.

Jake doesn’t choose to summon Alpha Dave, who Dirk talked up to high heaven, if the pesterlog from when they were 13 is any indication. He doesn’t choose to summon his Grandma, either — despite the fact that she used to be the one to take care of him and keep him safe, and he clearly admires her.

He doesn’t choose any movie hero — despite loving movies, and despite the fact that Tavros’ imaginary friend was from a movie as well. Jake doesn’t even choose himself, despite the fact that Jake has high, high hopes for his own ability to be cool and powerful and successful early on in the story.

No, he chooses Dirk. Dirk is who he believes in. Dirk is who Jake goes to for protection, comfort, and safety. Even much later, when Jake sours on the relationship due to their other issues, and complains about it extensively to Jane, Jake never once expresses discomfort or resentment over fighting the Brobot, or implies he regards Dirk as any sort of coercive threat.

I don’t think a reading that he viewed the Brobot as a threat or oppressive force in any way lines up with his unwavering trust in Brain Ghost Dirk as a figure of physical safety and protection. The two are simply irreconcilable.

Especially so because there are other ways in which Brain Ghost Dirk is explicitly marred for Jake. Brain Ghost Dirk is a figure of physical protection and safety to Jake, but he’s also a figure emotional unavailability, passive aggression, sexual objectification, and intellectual condescension.

If you find you agree with me so far, that means we can now move on to the next part of this series. Next time, we’ll be exploring the part of Dirk and Jake’s relationship that was unarguably toxic, and untangling the complicated events that led to Brain Ghost Dirk taking on those aforementioned negative qualities — the codependent triad that developed between Jake, Dirk, and the AR.