Posts Tagged ‘Feminism’

Browsing the Guardian this week, I encountered a deliberately provocative headline – ‘Howard Jacobsen: All my books are apocalyptic. I have never met an intelligent optimist’ – and promptly did a double-take when I read down to see that Jacobsen has apparently been shortlisted for the Booker Prize for his latest novel, J, which is being described as ‘dystopian’ and ‘apocalyptic’. I frowned at the computer screen, trying and failing to reconcile this information with Jacobsen’s self-professed status as someone who is contemptuous of genre things; a man who once argued that what makes genre fiction genre fiction is its formal predictability… the best novels will always defy category‘. And, indeed, it’s clear that Jacobsen does include dystopian fiction as a type of genre writing, as per his assertion that ‘internecine war will sometimes break out between the genrists – paranormalists deriding the moralistic pretensions of dystopians, for example‘. One could be forgiven for expecting, therefore, that Jacobsen has taken issue with such labels being applied to his own work; or at the very least, has failed to use those labels himself.

Apparently not. ‘In a way,’ he says, ‘all my books are apocalyptic.’

In his 2012 review of Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, Hal Parker made a salient observation about Chabon’s use of genre:

Reappropriating genre literature under the aegis of high culture has become a familiar convention of postmodern literary fiction; really, “literary genre fiction” is arguably a genre of its own at this point. Even more common is the practice of saturating a novel in a given milieu to such a degree that the milieu itself comes to serve as the “brand” of the novel. There, however, lies the rub: While Mr. Chabon is white, much of the milieu providing the “brand” of Telegraph Avenue (soul and jazz music, Blaxploitation films, the Black Panthers, Oakland and its environs) is unmistakably black. What this means is that “literary genre fiction” now runs the risk of becoming a kind of sophisticated “literary gentrification”—a process by which a predominantly black milieu is appropriated by a white novelist as a springboard. Put simply, is the story of “Brokeland,” whatever it may be, really Mr. Chabon’s to tell?

Though Parker is speaking specifically about a white writer’s appropriation of black culture, going on to link these elements with the novel’s arguable classification as a work of ‘gentrification fiction,’ the idea of literary gentrification has, I would argue, a wider and more general applicability which he himself acknowledges: namely, the idea of literary writers seeking to detach – and therefore, in their frequent estimation, elevate, or even rescue – genre ideas from their cultural, narrative and contextual points of origin. Part of what makes this such a difficult phenomenon to discuss, however, is the fact that ‘genre fiction’ has long since become an umbrella term encompassing wildly different types of writing, each with its own history, heroes and hallmarks, and each with varying points of intersection and overlap with the others. Much like a university attempting to unite a handful of disparate academic schools under a single banner by turning them into a college, ‘genre fiction’ is often treated – and, as a consequence, called on to defend itself – as if it were a single, coherent entity, and not, as per the university model, an administrative and academic siphonophore. As such, I would argue that genre fiction isn’t a genre in and of itself, but rather a college of genre – and that makes for some interesting analysis.

For instance: author N. K. Jemisin, who is African-American, has spoken in the past about her books being shelved in the African-American section of bookshops, despite the fact that she writes epic fantasy. It’s worth quoting her at length on this point, for reasons that will hopefully become apparent:

I understand why this section exists — because the publishing industry rather notoriously would not publish books by or about black people until the 1990s, unless those books were deemed of sufficient interest to white readers. Prior to the 1990s it was kind of hard for black readers to find these “accepted” black writers (outside of Black History Month), because there weren’t many of them, and because their works were mixed in with the mainstream. So black readers had to rely on word-of-mouth — which, pre-internet, was actually kind of limiting…

It took black authors self-publishing to lucrative success, with some rather famously becoming bestsellers by hand-selling self-pub’d books from the trunks of their cars, to prove to the industry that yes Virginia, black people do read, and what’s more they buy, and I dunno gee maybe it’s kind of racist to assume otherwise. So publishers paid attention and started snatching up black writers, and later black small presses, in an effort to latch on to this “new” audience. Many of them started heavy-handed marketing campaigns designed to appeal to the “urban” reader (where “urban” somehow = “black”) by using arcane language (e.g. “keepin’ it real!”) and plastering poorly-designed book covers with women who looked like music video refugees and men who looked like ex-cons. Or whatever the industry thought ex-cons looked like. And some black readers were grateful for the attention, after so long a time of neglect.

Problem is, most black readers aren’t “new” readers. That was a misconception derived from the initial racist assumption by publishers and retailers that “black people don’t read”; to people who swallowed that baloney, it must have seemed as though millions of black readers suddenly sprang fully-formed from E. Lynn Harris’ forehead in 1995. This is a completely illogical, frankly asinine assumption — what, were we all sitting around playing with our Dick and Janes before that? But that’s racism for you; logic fail all over the place.

And instead of dropping that original racist assumption that black people didn’t read, the industry gave it an upgrade: OK, black people do read, but they don’t read like the rest of us (read: white people, because Latinos and Asians and so forth don’t matter). And they don’t have the same need for well-drawn characters, engaging plots, etc., because they’re not very smart or well-read. All we have to do is give them are plenty of examples of people who look like them and speak “the vernacular” and deal with “their issues” (which are not like our issues). Profit! And because the industry also assumed that nobody but black people would want to read all this, y’know, “black stuff”, they decided to dump it all onto a single shelf, usually in the back of the store, and stick a label on it: African American Interest. Which might as well have read, “Everybody But Black People, Nothin’ to See Here. Move Along.”…

As a result of this old and new racism, the AAF section of today is mostly just a constricted, homogenizing ghetto. Writers stuck there — those who aren’t big enough to be cross-marketed — have lower earning potential, because it’s a lot harder to sell books when they’re marketed to 12% of the population than 100% of the population. Let’s not talk about how some black authors have been forced into this marketing classification against their will. And then there’s the problem of content reliability. There is no reason that anyone should look among the “thug love” books to find Alaya Dawn Johnson’s lyrical fantasy Racing the Dark. The folks who would be interested in one are highly unlikely to be interested in the other. But that is precisely what happened to her, because her book got shelved in the AAF section too.The Autobiography of Malcolm X has diddlysquat-all to do with Zane’s “Sex Chronicles”, but I have personally seen these two authors shelved side-by-side in AAF, I guess because X comes near Z on a bookshelf…

Worse, any bookstore or library that does this is, IMO, perpetuating the same racist assumptions that caused this problem in the first place. It all comes down to the idea of universality — which mostly just means “the ability to write something that appeals to white readers”, in my experience. Before the AAF boom, black readers were assumed to have no interest in books meant to appeal to white readers; hence the assumption that we “didn’t exist”. When our existence was confirmed, black readers were then assumed to be strange ducks, Not Like The Rest Of Us in taste or discernment, fundamentally alien — or Other — in our intelligence and thought processes. And black writers — despite having written mainstream books for generations — were assumed to be incapable of writing for anything other than this strange, alien audience. If “universality” = “whiteness”, well, of course we couldn’t possibly have it. Even if we did.

Trying to disentangle concepts of genre from concepts of race is, therefore, a highly problematic proposition, and one which ties in particularly to concepts of antiblackness, as per the fact that, as Jemisin points out, the African American section* is concerned only with the segregation of one specific racial identity. As such, it’s worth noting that both Howard Jacobsen and Michael Chabon are Jewish men, and while it’s conceivable that Telegraph Avenue might have been shelved in the AAF section, Chabon’s other works – such as, for instance, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, which arguably belongs to the college of genre, and which, as the title suggests, is deeply concerned with questions of Jewish identity – would not receive the same treatment. Jacobsen’s J is similarly informed, taking place after an event described in his interview as a ‘mass pogrom':

The new book is about the annihilation of any group, any “other”, Jacobson says. “The Jews happen to be the group that I know about, so it is informed by antisemitism, but the point is that if you get rid of ‘the other’ you then have an absence; an absence of irony, an absence of disputatiousness. No argument should ever win that completely.”

Not having read J – and despite my general dislike of Jacobsen, I’ll admit I’m tempted – I can’t pass any judgement on the quality of the book, its dystopian elements or its relationship with the college of genre. What I can say, however – and returning, at long last, to the original point – is that Jacobsen’s decision to write a dystopian work, embracing the potential of genre’s college without rescinding his previous disdain for it, and being rewarded for his efforts with a second Booker shortlisting, raises an important question. Namely: if, as Jacobsen himself contends, truly great novels defy categorisation, then in the game of literary gentrification, which writers are considered capable of transcending genre while still employing its tropes, and which are not? Because if, per Parker’s criticism of Telegraph Avenue, there’s a parallel to be made between the racial implications of a particular narrative and the context in which that narrative is both created and received, and by whom, then it doesn’t seem irrelevant that, whereas works like Jacobsen’s J, Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road are, apparently without effort, classed as being both literary and genre-transcendent while still possessing strong dystopian roots, something like Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death is not. When Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time-Traveller’s Wife, with its titular SFFnal conceit, can be shelved and discussed as a purely literary work, but Octavia Butler’s Kindred or Delia Sherman’s The Freedom Maze cannot, then we have a problem. When Nicholas Sparks, a man made rich and famous by his penchant for writing about tragically beautiful white people having romantic sex in the rain, states emphatically that ‘If you look for me, I’m in the fiction section. Romance has its own section… I don’t write romance novels,’ and the bookstores of the world agree with him, while N. K. Jemisin can end up shelved in the African American section regardless of the actual content of her novels, then yes: we have a problem.

Literary gentrification is not a simple matter of famous literary authors – who, coincidentally, tend to be straight, white men – cherrypicking SFFnal tropes and declaring them cleansed of genre, transcendent of but inspired by: it is as much a question of whose writing we deem capable of having this effect as one of which writers strive to have this effect, in that however much one tries to transcend, one cannot actually achieve it – or be told that such achievement has, in fact, occurred, regardless of intention – without a critical audience to argue, or even assume, that this is the case. The idea that works either by or about POC constitute a discreet genre is, as Jemisin points out, as problematic as it is established within the industry, but despite the college of genre being long defined as the home of ‘anything and everything not deemed literary fiction’, it had never quite occurred to me before that the former can be seen to fit within the latter. Perhaps this is yet one more reason why the question of diversity within SFF has become so prominent lately: we have, at long last, begun to argue for the rights of everyone in our college, however falteringly, and if those rights are ultimately defined as ‘the right of POC to not be viewed as inhabitants of a separate genre, but as an integral and assumed part of any readership or creative body’, then so much the better.

Because as much as I loathe seeing smug literary authors speak snidely about SFF in one breath while borrowing its tropes in the next, I’d be misplacing my outrage if this was the only level on which the phenomenon disturbed me. The archetype of the straight white male literary author is so culturally ingrained at this point that it can, at times, serve to obscure the very tangible prejudices underlying the reasons for its primacy: that, now as historically, in genre as in culture, the dominance of straight, white and/or Western men in a given sphere, coupled with a corresponding lack of representation from other groups, is not a fucking coincidence. I would be far more inclined to accept Jacobsen’s argument that truly great works transcend the classification of genre if the ability to bestow transcendence was not apparently restricted to a narrow class of person, not because they’re the only ones interested in producing such works, but because we assume their works possess a certain quality that the works of others do not, even when they deal with similar themes in a similar manner. Hypocritically borrowing from a genre one professes to despise is one thing, but doing so as part of a process of literary gentrification predicated on the selfsame dystopian history of racism, sexism and exclusion of the Other you’re ostensibly critiquing is quite another.

One cannot help but wonder if Jacobsen has noticed the irony.

*As the name suggests, the African American section is something you’re unlikely to find in bookstores outside of America. I’ve never seen an equivalent section separating out, for instance, Aboriginal literature in Australian stores, but that doesn’t mean such sections don’t exist, and if you’ve seen or heard of one, I’d be interested in hearing about it.

In the past two days, I’ve ended up in two different arguments with two different men – both of them strangers – in two different forums, about two (ostensibly) different issues; and yet their methods of argument, even their language, have proven eerily similar. The first argument happened on Facebook, when a friend posted a joke about MRAs (“How many Men’s Rights Activists does it take to change a lightbulb? Not all of them!”) and one of her friends chimed in to assert that, as feminists, we were hypocrites for finding it funny, because if the joke were being told about women, we’d be outraged. The second argument happened on Twitter, when, in response to my tweeting Mallory Ortberg’s recent deconstruction of a sexist book review, an unknown man asked both of us, plus another woman, whether we’d have been just as outraged if the targeted reviewer had been female (the implication being that we were, once again, hypocrites).

Both disputes began with a single man challenging two or more feminist women to defend their beliefs on the basis of a hypothetical genderflip from male to female which, in both cases, completely missed the point of the conversation. In the first argument, changing the subject’s gender would obviously have an impact on how the joke was received, because the joke is explicitly contextualised by our awareness of gender inequality, the punchline a verbatim reference to the cry of “Not ALL men!” with which MRAs so frequently – and aggressively – attempt to derail feminist discourse about sexism and misogyny. To suggest, therefore, that such a joke is offensive on the grounds that a genderflipped version would be even moreso is to fundamentally misunderstand that this is the actual point of the joke: namely, that even though women are still being  disenfranchised by an entrenched culture of sexism, the first response of too many men is to act as though their hurt feelings at being accused of sexism, however tangentially, is the greater evil.

By contrast, the proposed genderflip  in the second argument was ineffective for the opposite reason: though Ortberg’s piece certainly made mention, not only of the reviewer’s gender, but of the fact that she’d yet to see the book in question reviewed by a woman, the ultimate point was simply that the review itself was written in a sexist manner; that this was not a helpful way for anyone to review women’s writing. Had a female reviewer written the exact same piece, replete with the exact same biases and problematic turns of phrase, Ortberg might certainly have worded her response differently, if only in the sense of attributing the reviewer’s attitude to internalised sexism rather than male privilege, but the source material would still have been sexist, and therefore deserving of the exact same level of outrage. For our interlocutor to have based his opening rhetorical sally on the idea that female feminists will be naturally more inclined to excuse sexism if it comes from other women – and worse, to phrase this 101-level question as though we had never once considered it before – was not only deeply oblivious, but actively insulting.

To be clear: genderflipping can be – and frequently is – a useful rhetorical device in conversations about both sexism generally and the more specific issues facing persons of all genders. But its usefulness is always going to be contextually dependant on the user’s understanding, not only of what sexism is, but how and why it functions. Because sexism is fundamentally a problem of inequality, the subversive impact of a well-executed genderflip rests in its ability to switch the (im)balance of power in unexpected ways, thereby highlighting the fact that it exists to be subverted in the first place. Genderflipping an argument to support or restore the status quo, however – whether by asking us to sympathise with those already deemed sympathetic, or to approve the power of those already powerful, at the expense of those already viewed as unsympathetic or powerless – is not only a wrongheaded misuse of the technique, but a catastrophic failure of comprehension. The same is true of other subversive flips, like racebending (which is why, for instance, Victoria Foyt’s Revealing Eden: Save the Pearls was such an all-out disaster).

The fact that these two men deployed the exact same tactic for the same, poor reason was notable. That their subsequent responses also aligned was downright creepy – and I mean that in the fullest sense of the word. In response to their condescending language, I referred to each man in tern as patronising, half in anger, half in the hope that they might rethink their approaches. Here is how they responded:

On Facebook: Being patronizing is so much fun you are welcome for it… You may be right but your anger clouds your point and makes it seem far to emotional and not logical. Now before you go off your rocker that I just equated your style of rhetoric with classic feminine traits, I will say that I have done this very thing to men on facebook and gotten the same overly emotional reaction… I always am deliberately patronizing because it would be a waste of the day to do it by accident.    

On TwitterMy pathetic faux-humour patronizes men and women in equal measure. Men find me every bit as exhausting.

In other words, both men accepted that, yes, they were indeed being deliberately patronising, but that I had no grounds for finding their approach sexist, because they were just as rude to men – as though, once again, completely ignoring both the context and the content of the conversation was sufficient to make the accusation go away. Nor is this curious tactic of attempting to deny sexism by claiming misanthropy, or some version of it – as though an admission of being rude to everyone completely rules out the possibility of being rude to certain types of person in specific, culturally coded ways – a two-man anomaly. To quote from Lindy West’s How to Make a Rape Joke:

This fetishization of not censoring yourself, of being an “equal-opportunity offender,” is bizarre and bad for comedy. When did “not censoring yourself” become a good thing? We censor ourselves all the time, because we are not entitled, sociopathic fucks… And being an “equal opportunity offender”—as in, “It’s okay, because Daniel Tosh makes fun of ALL people: women, men, AIDS victims, dead babies, gay guys, blah blah blah”—falls apart when you remember (as so many of us are forced to all the time) that all people are not in equal positions of power. “Oh, don’t worry—I punch everyone in the face! People, baby ducks, a lion, this Easter Island statue, the ocean…” Okay, well that baby duck is dead now. And you’re a duck-murderer. It’s really easy to believe that “nothing is sacred” when the sanctity of your body and your freedom are never legitimately threatened.

Both encounters were frustrating and draining; both left me feeling like I’d wasted time, effort and emotional energy engaging with someone who viewed my exhaustion and distress as a personal victory.  It is disputes like this, in fact – not so much for their content, but for their frequency and duration – which so often prompt people to say, Don’t feed the trolls. Don’t engage. Just ignore them, and they’ll go away. But as I’ve said elsewhere, and as much as even such minor encounters increasingly threaten to burn me out, this isn’t advice I’m willing to take. Like playground bullies, trolls don’t go away when ignored: quite the opposite. They take silence to mean they’ve won, or as assent, or as a challenge to try harder: either way, it invariably emboldens them. I’m not for an instant suggesting that people should engage above and beyond their coping level, or that we should all die on every half-assed rhetorical hill that drops into our blog comments with a virtual smirk and the suggestion that lol maybe ur overreacting??? – I just don’t believe that silence is the answer. This sort of behaviour isn’t anomalous; it’s part of a pattern, and one which needs to be identified before it can ever hope to be changed.

Recently, my husband and I burned through S1 of Orphan Black, which, as promised by virtually the entire internet, was awesome. But in all the praise I’d seen for it, a line from one review in particular stuck in my mind. The reviewer noted that, although the protagonist, Sarah, is an unlikeable character, her grifter skills make her perfectly suited to unravelling the mystery in which she finds herself. And as this was a positive review, I kept that quote in mind when we started watching, sort of by way of prewarning myself: you maybe won’t like Sarah, but that’s OK.

But here’s the thing: I fucking loved Sarah. I mean, I get what the reviewer was trying to say, in that she’s not always a sympathetic character, but that’s not the same as her actually being unlikeable. And the more I watched, the more I found myself thinking: why is this quality, the idea of likeability, considered so important for women, but so optional for men – not just in real life, but in narrative? Because when it comes to guys, we have whole fandoms bending over backwards to write soulful meta humanising male characters whose actions, regardless of their motives, are far less complex than monstrous. We take male villains and redeem them a hundred, a thousand times over – men who are murderers, stalkers, abusers, kinslayers, traitors, attempted or successful rapists; men with personal histories so bloody and tortured, it’s like looking at a battlefield. In doing this, we exhibit enormous compassion for and understanding of the nuances of human behaviour – sympathy for circumstance, for context, for motive and character and passion and rage, the heartache and, to steal a phrase, the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to; and as such, regardless of how I might feel about the practice as applied in specific instances, in general, it’s a praiseworthy endeavour. It helps us to see human beings, not as wholly black and white, but as flawed and complicated creatures, and we need to do that, because it’s what we are.

But when it comes to women, a single selfish or not-nice act – a stolen kiss, a lie, a brushoff – is somehow enough to see them condemned as whores and bitches forever. We readily excuse our favourite male characters of murder, but if a woman politely turns down a date with someone she has no interest in, she’s a timewasting user bimbo and god, what does he even see in her? Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen some great online meta about, for instance, the soulfulness and moral ambiguity of Black Widow, but I’ve also seen a metric fucktonne more about what that particular jaw-spasm means in that one GIF of Cumberbatch/Ackles/Hiddleston/Smith alone, and that’s before you get into the pages-long pieces about why Rumplestiltskin or Hook or Spike or Bucky Barnes or whoever is really just a tortured woobie who needs a hug. Hell, I’m guilty of writing some of that stuff myself, because see above: plus, it’s meaty and fun and exactly the kind of analysis I like to write.

And yet, we tend overwhelmingly not to write it about ladies. It’s not just our cultural obsession with pushing increasingly specific variants of the Madonna/Whore complex onto women, such that audiences are disinclined to extend to female characters the same moral/emotional licenses they extend to men; it’s also a failure to create narratives where the women aren’t just flawed, but where the audience is still encouraged to like them when they are.

Returning to Orphan Black, for instance, if Sarah were male, he’d be unequivocally viewed as either a complex, sympathetic antihero or a loving battler with a heart of gold. I mean, the ex-con trying to go straight and get his daughter back while still battling the illegalities of his old life and punching bad guys? Let me introduce you to SwordfishDeath Race, and about a millionty other stories where a father’s separation from a beloved child, whether as a consequence of his actual criminal actions, shiftless neglect, sheer bad luck or a combination of all three, is never couched as a reason why he might not be a fit parent. We tend to accept, both culturally and narratively, that men who abandon their children aren’t automatically bad dads; they just have other, important things to be doing first, like coming to terms with parenthood, saving the world, escaping from prison or otherwise getting their shit together. But Sarah, who left her child in the care of someone she trusted absolutely, has to jump through hoops to prove her maternal readiness on returning; has to answer for her absence over and over again. And on one level, that’s fine; that’s as it should be, because Sarah’s life is dangerous. And yet, her situation stands in glaring contrast to every returning father who’s never been asked to do half so much, because women aren’t meant to struggle with motherhood, to have to try to succeed: we’re either maternal angels or selfish absentees, and the idea that we might sometimes be both or neither isn’t one you often see depicted with such nuance.

Which isn’t to say that we never see mothers struggling – it’s just seldom with their desire to actually be mothers. Maternal angels struggle with the day-to-day business of domesticity: how to deal with teenage chatback and those oh-so-hilariously forgetful sitcom husbands, how to balance the bills and keep everyone fed, how to find time for themselves amidst all their endless finding time for others. By contrast, selfish absentees are usually career-oriented single mothers in high-stress jobs, either unwilling or unable to find the appropriate amount of time for their children. Looking at the gender disparity in the characterisation of TV detectives who are also parents is particularly interesting: not only are the men more likely to have wives at home (to begin with, at least), they’re also more likely to be granted reconciliation with their children later. Contrast obsessive, depressive detective Kurt Wallander, who slowly rebuilds his relationship with his daughter, with obsessive, depressive detective Sarah Lund, who steadily destroys the possibility of a relationship with her son. Compare single fathers like Seeley Booth and Richard Castle, whose ability to parent well is never implied to be compromised by their devotion to the job, with single mothers like Alex Fielding and Gloria Sheppard, whose characterisation is largely defined by the difficulties of striking a balance between the two roles. Orphan Black’s Sarah is a rare creature, in that she falls outside the usual boxes for maternal categorisation, and in so doing forces us to re-examine exactly why that is.

In fact, though their respective shows and stories are utterly dissimilar in every other respect, in terms of her approach to motherhood, the character Sarah most reminded me of was Laura Gibson, the protagonist of SeaChange, an Australian show about which I have previously waxed lyrical, and which I cannot recommend highly enough. Though ostensibly subject to the same stereotyping outlined above – Laura was a high-flying corporate lawyer and newly single mother whose decision to move to a small town and reconnect with her family constituted the titular sea-change – she was written with such complexity and feeling as to defy the cliché. She was eager and well-meaning, but just as often selfish and oblivious. Though she learned to slow down and listen to others over the course of three series, she never became a domestic goddess or a motherly martyr; nor did she magically lose her flaws or suddenly develop a perfect relationship with her children. Instead, she remained a prickly, complex character, quick to both give and take offence, but also introspective, passionate, sly and caring. Like Sarah, she wasn’t always sympathetic, but that didn’t stop me from loving her, flaws and all.

But what of female villains? Perhaps I’m just not reading the right meta, but it’s always seemed a bit glaring to me that, whereas (for instance) there are endless paeans to the moral complexity and intricate personal histories of the Buffyverse’s Spike and Angel, their female counterparts, Drusilla and Darla, never seem to merit the same degree of compulsive protection. I’ve seen a bit of positive/sympathetic meta surrounding Once Upon A Time’s Regina, but otherwise, I can’t think of many overtly antagonistic female characters whose actions and motives are viewed as complex, and therefore potentially redemptive, instead of just as proof that they’re bad women. We think of men as antiheroes, as capable of occupying an intense and fascinating moral grey area; of being able to fall, and rise, and fall again, but still be worthy of love on some fundamental level, because if it was the world and its failings that broke them, then we surely must owe them some sympathy. But women aren’t allowed to be broken by the world; or if we are, it’s the breaking that makes us villains. Wronged women turn into avenging furies, inhuman and monstrous: once we cross to the dark side, we become adversaries to be defeated, not lost souls in need of mending. Which is what happens, when you let benevolent sexism invest you in the idea that women are humanity’s moral guardians and men its native renegades: because if female goodness is only ever an inherent quality – something we’re born both with and to be – then once lost, it must necessarily be lost forever, a severed limb we can’t regrow. Whereas male goodness, by virtue of being an acquired quality – something bestowed through the kindness of women, earned through right action or learned through struggle – can just as necessarily be gained and lost multiple times without being tarnished, like a jewel we might pawn in hardship, and later reclaim.

Throughout history, women’s legal status and protections have been tied to the question of whether or not they’re seen to be virtuous, whatever that means in context. The sworn virgins of Albania were granted equal status with men – indeed, were allowed to live and act as men – provided they never had sex, owing to a specific legal stricture which ascribed female virgins the same financial worth as men, while valuing women less. The big three monotheisms – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – all boast scriptures and/or religious laws that have, both historically and in the modern day, allotted specific legal privileges to women provided they remain virtuous; privileges which are invariably retracted should the woman in question be seen to have strayed, or become tarnished, or to have otherwise lost her virtue. We see this echoed in modern rape culture, which puts the onus for self-protection on women to such a degree that, far too often, if a woman is raped, her victimhood is viewed as a consequence of poor character – because if she really was innocent, then how did she let it happen? Why was she dressed that way, or out late, or drinking? Why, if she wasn’t already lacking in virtue, would she have been in the company of a rapist?

And so, our treatment of morally ambiguous female characters ends up paralleling some truly toxic assumptions about gender and morality. Women cannot act to redeem themselves independently, because under far too many laws, our need of redemption voids our right to try and reacquire it. Good women can redeem broken men, but good men can’t redeem broken women, because once we’re broken, we lose our virtue; and without our virtue, we’re no longer women, but monsters, witches and viragos.

Which is why, to come full circle, I fucking love the fact that Orphan Black’s Sarah Manning isn’t always sympathetic; isn’t always traditionally likeable.  She is, rather, an antiheroine in the most literal sense: and with all the Madonna/Whore bullshit we’re still caught up in imposing on women, that’s a class of character we desperately need to see more of.

(Note: I’ve only talked about men and women here, rather than third gender, genderfluid and other gender non-conforming persons, because it’s men and women we usually see depicted in stories, and whose narratives therefore form the bulk of our cultural stereotyping. The absence or elision of narratives concerning other genders, however, along with their own highly stereotyped portrayals when they do appear, is a problem in and of itself, and a contributing factor in the way men and women are stereotyped: because when we view gender purely as a fixed binary phenomenon, whether consciously or unconsciously, we make it harder to see beyond the rules that binary has traditionally imposed on our thinking, repeatedly foisting “masculine”/”feminine” values onto successive new characters without ever stopping to think that actually, we might challenge or subvert those norms instead, a blindness which only helps to further perpetuate the problem.)

Trigger warning: racism, homophobia.

So, author John C. Wright wrote a thing on the evils of political correctness in SFF, and I’m honestly trying to form a cogent, logical response to it, but that’s a difficult proposition when the thing in question is neither. I’ve read it twice, which was clearly a tactical error on health grounds, as my face now looks like this:

WIN_20140507_171248

and I just – OK.

Let me show you the problem I’m having (my emphasis):

What we have now instead is a smothering fog of caution, of silence, of an unwillingness to speak for fear of offending the perpetually hypersensitive.

Science fiction is under the control of the thought police…

The uproar of hate directed against this innocent and honorable man [Orson Scott Card] is vehement and ongoing

Likewise, when Larry Correia was nominated for a Hugo Award, the gossips reacted with astonishing venom, vocal enough to be mentioned in the Washington Post and USA Today

His detractors, including leaders in the field, announced in triumphant tones their plan to vote his work NO AWARD, without having read the nominated book, and they encouraged fandom to do likewise.

Do you see the issue? You cannot state, as your opening premise, that SFF fandom is being handicapped by silence and an unwillingness to speak out, and then support that premise by stating the exact polar opposite: that there has, in your own words, been vocal uproarDoubtless, what Wright meant to imply is that the persons against whom the uproar is directed are being silenced by it – that he, and others like him, such as Larry Correia and Theodore Beale, are now suffering under the burden of enforced quietude. But given that all three men are still writing publicly and vocally, not just about the issues Wright raises, but about any number of other topics, the idea that their output is being curtailed by their own “unwillingness to speak for fear of offending” is patently false. Indeed, by their own repeated admission, Correia, Beale and Wright are wholly unafraid of causing offence, even sometimes going so far as to seek outraged reactions. So if Wright and his fellows proudly don’t care about being offensive, then who does: who really fears to speak? By untangling the nonsensical web that is Wright’s attempt at logic, a paradoxical answer emerges: that the people who actually do care about causing offence – the apparent victims of silence – are simultaneously the same gossipy, vocal detractors responsible for silencing… ourselves, as it turns out. Where “silence” is a synonym for “uproar”.

Speechless

 

Inigo Montoya

But then, this is hardly surprising, given that Wright also defines “the spirit of intellectual fearlessness” of the Golden Age – a time when “science fiction was an oasis of intellectual liberty, a place where no idea was sacrosanct and no idea was unwelcome” – as a period when “few science fiction readers were offended by his [Heinlen's] or anyone’s ideas”. (Because intellectual fearlessness is clearly the antithesis of spirited, impassioned debate and the bedfellow of conformity.) But now that “the lunatic Left”, having “planned and struggled for years, decades, to achieve their cultural influence” has done so, true SFF fans need to “retake our lost home one mind, one institution, at a time”.

Take a good, long moment to parse all that, and you’ll find it’s just as self-contradictory on closer inspection as it is at first glance. According to Wright, the SFF of old was a culture in which “no idea was unwelcome”, but in which “the lunatic left” – quite rightly, in his view – had no power or presence: the way to recapture the tolerance of old, therefore, is to violently remove any new perspectives. Wright seems similarly unaware of the breathtaking irony inherent in lauding Golden Age SF a permissive, welcoming “oasis of intellectual liberty” while simultaneously noting that:

The older the strata of science fiction being mined, or the more deeply into nuts-and-bolts the SF tale, the smaller the percentage of women found in the candidate pool. Plucking twenty tales out of the whole mass of SF from 1958 to 2006 (the print range of the stories), even if done at random, might easily have no female authors present.

The famed “oasis”, it seems, had some fairly pertinent membership restrictions.

Gliding over the part where Wright apparently thinks that one cannot possibly be both Hispanic and racist, we come to the real meat of his argument: that figures like Beale and Correia are being criticised, not because they’ve said anything worth objecting to, but because the left is obsessed with “obedience to goodthink”. As Wright makes multiple other references to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in the course of his piece – a book whose protagonist, Winston Smith, works as an historical revisionist for the Ministry of Truth, rewriting old newspaper articles to better fit the party line – it seems only fitting to present his defence of each apparently-persecuted individual, and his version of what they did – suitably bolded for emphasis –  alongside the sourced, verbatim quotes of the subjects and/or a sourced account of what actually happened.

Thus:

Wright Claims That: “Orson Scott Card publicly expressed the mildest imaginable opposition to having judges overrule popular votes defining marriage in the traditional way.”

What Card Actually Said: The first and greatest threat from court decisions in California and Massachusetts, giving legal recognition to “gay marriage,” is that it marks the end of democracy in America.”

Wright Claims That: “Theodore Beale was expelled from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers America (SFWA), our professional union, on the rather specious grounds that he repeated comments from a members-only bulletin board to the general public. He was libeled with the same typical menu as above. (By odd coincidence, the falsely accused racist here is also Hispanic.)”

What Beale Actually Said: We do not view her [N.K. Jemisin] as being fully civilised… those self-defence laws [like Stand Your Ground in Flordia] have been put in place to let whites defend themselves by shooting people like her, who are savages in attacking white people… [she is] an educated, but ignorant, savage with no more understanding of what it took to build a new literature… than an illiterate Igbotu tribesman has of how to build a jet engine.”

What Actually Happened: Beale was expelled from the SFWA, not because he “repeated comments from a members-only bulletin board to the general public”,  but because he used the SFWA’s professional Twitter feed to promote his racist screed about Jemisin.

Wright Claims: The Mammoth Book of Mindblowing SF is an anthology edited by Mike Ashley. When it was noticed that there were no women authors in the table of contents, fandom was whipped into prepackaged frenzy… Plucking twenty tales out of the whole mass of SF from 1958 to 2006 (the print range of the stories), even if done at random, might easily have no female authors present… The case of Mike Ashley was arbitrary.”

The Actual Facts: Wright’s defence of Ashley is predicated on the idea that such a small percentage of SF was written by women over a more than fifty-year period that, even if a sample of stories were chosen at random, women could easily be absent altogether. (He appears completely disinterested in the whiteness of the list.) So, let’s do the math for female writing, shall we? Here are some rough numbers: in 1948, 10-15% of spec fic writers were women, and by 1999, 36% of the SFWA’s membership was female. Obviously, SFWA membership isn’t the be-all, end-all of female participation in the genre, or even of American participation in the genre, and by the same token, the window for these statistics both starts and ends before the period Wright is discussing, which puts us at a double disadvantage, as women’s representation in SFF has inarguably increased over time. Even so, let’s seriously lowball the range by rounding down, and say that, during the period from 1958 to 2006, women contributed just 25% of all professionally published SF works. Now, The Mammoth Book of Mindblowing SF contains twenty-one stories – five of which, crucially, were new works commissioned especially for inclusion the anthology. That leaves us with just sixteen stories potentially drawn from the period Wright is referencing. And if you do the maths on the basis of these numbers – namely, if you were to pick sixteen stories at random from a collection where 25% were written by women – then 99% of the time, you’d end up with at least one female-authored story.  Which means that Ashley’s anthology would have been more diverse if he had, in fact, chosen his works at random; but of course, the point is, he didn’t. Not only did he commission five new stories exclusively from white male writers, but in digging through the entire history of SF, he somehow managed to miss even classic greats like Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Joanna Russ, Andre Norton and James Tiptree Jr, as well as modern award-winners like Aliette de Bodard, Catherynne M. Valente and Elizabeth Bear. So, no: the case against Mike Ashley – or, more specifically, against The Mammoth Book of Mindblowing SF – was anything but “arbitrary”.

Wright Claims That: “The case of Malzberg and Resnick and Rabe is a paragon of disproportionate punishment. Normal practice when complaints about a writer arrive is to tell him not to repeat the gaffe. Normally, policies are enacted before they are enforced. Here the punishments were cruel, unusual, and ex post facto.”

What Actually Happened: Beyond apparently being dropped as contributing writers for the SFWA Bulletin (though interestingly, I can find no public announcement to this effect), neither Barry Malzberg nor Mike Resnick seems to have received any formal punishment from the SFWA, though editor Jean Rabe, as stated, resigned. The “cruel, unusual” punishments described by Wright , therefore, appear to be non-existent; unless he’s referring to the fact that they lost their column as a result of public backlash. If this is the case, however, it’s worth noting three important things. Firstly: Resnick and Malzberg  weren’t dismissed out of the blue, but after they were given the opportunity to respond to their critics, and after their initial remarks had already generated public controversy, which puts paid to the notion that their “punishment”, such as it was, was entirely ex post facto. Secondly, they weren’t rebuked because of a “gaffe”, if you can even call it that, as the word implies an accidental error, but for their lengthy, deliberate and fervent castigation of their critics within the Bulletin’s pages. And thirdly, there is nothing “cruel” or even particularly “unusual” in an organisation dropping writers or employees for expressing sentiments that have had a deleterious effect on how that organisation is perceived. Last year, for instance, PR Executive Justine Saco was fired after posting an offensive, racist tweet, while in 2002, blogger Heather Armstrong famously lost her job over the contents of her website, dooce.com, which lead to the term “dooced” being coined to describe the act of being fired for writing on one’s blog. While there are many pertinent and complex arguments to be made concerning the firing of persons for their personal beliefs, never mind in instances where those beliefs are disseminated through company channels, the one thing you cannot call the phenomenon is “unusual”.

Wright Claims That:  “Elizabeth Moon was “uninvited” from being the guest of honor at a large convention for making the rather unremarkable remark that immigrants to the United States should assimilate. This was decried as so inflammatory that the fans would be in danger of death at the hands of justifiably outraged militants driven to madness by Miss Moon’s race-hatred.”

What Moon Actually Said: “I know–I do not dispute–that many Muslims had nothing to do with the [9/11] attacks, did not approve of them, would have stopped them if they could.  I do not dispute that there are moderate, even liberal, Muslims, that many Muslims have all the virtues of civilized persons and are admirable in all those ways…  But Muslims fail to recognize how much forbearance they’ve had… I feel that I personally (and many others) lean over backwards to put up with these things, to let Muslims believe stuff that unfits them for citizenship, on the grounds of their personal freedom.”

What Actually Happened: At the time Moon made the above remarks, she was scheduled to appear as the Guest of Honour at WisCon, a feminist SF convention which was explicitly founded to both support, and to create greater awareness of, diversity in SFF, with a particular emphasis on issues of race and gender. I find it rather convenient that Wright omits this fact, as it’s the crux of the point: Moon’s comments weren’t just general remarks about assimilation, but were specifically directed at, and critical of, Muslims in particular, and wildly out of keeping with WisCon’s stated agenda.

That’s some quality propagandising, Mr Wright. The Ministry of Truth would be proud.

I’ve already expended more time and energy on this post than was my original intention, but I can’t sign off without making note of Wright’s bizarrely gendered remarks on the difference between law and custom:

There are two ways for a sheep to be lead: one is by fear of the sheepdog, and the other is by following the sheep in front of him. The first is law and the second is custom.

Law is enforced by solemn ceremonies, oaths, judges in robes, policemen in uniforms, hangmen in hoods. It is objective, official, overt, masculine, and direct.

Custom is encouraged by countless social cues and expressions of peer pressure. It is subjective, informal, covert, feminine, and indirect.

In other words: Law, which is Masculine and Strong and Important and Upheld By Solemn Manly Male Officials, is Objectively Correct and Forthright, while Custom is all about silly stupid backstabbing bitchy girly stuff, and probably involves feelings. One would be hard-pressed to find a more smugly misogynistic division of social labours masquerading as objective logic, and yet, on the basis of everything else he’s said here, I guarantee that Wright would greet the mere suggestion of his possibly being even a teeny-weeny bit sexist, let alone misogynistic, with the sort of red-faced harrumphing outrage normally reserved for bull walruses in the mating season.

Walrus

So, in conclusion:

  • Silence and uproar are not synonyms;
  • Intellectual fearlessness is best exhibited through debate and criticism, not a failure to be offended;
  • Claiming that Golden Age SFF was an oasis of liberty open to all people and perspectives doesn’t work when you simultaneously mention that there were no women because Historical Sexism and also filthy leftwingers are the devil; and
  • Accusing your interlocutors of stooping to Orwellian tactics while actively and obviously deploying Orwellian tactics yourself isn’t just hypocritical, but on the internet, where it’s really easy to look up what actually happened and notice how it differs in several crucial respects from what you claimed happened, it’s also extremely stupid.

THANK YOU AND GOOD NIGHT.

 

 

A couple of years ago, while attending an SFF convention, I made the mistake of participating in a geek trivia contest. Normally, I love this sort of thing, even when I lose badly: I spent a not inconsiderable portion of my tweens and teens playing the original edition of Trivial Pursuit for fun, despite the fact that even the most “recent” events on the cards were all older than me by more than a decade. My parents used to beat me hollow, but I loved it, because I always felt like I learned something. So, understandably, I embarked on this particular quiz with a feeling of optimism. I didn’t care that it was billed as “ridiculously hard” – I just wanted to have a good time, and maybe learn some cool, obscure facts about the history of SFF. Instead, the whole thing quickly became the single worst experience I’ve ever had at a convention.

The Round 1 topic was meant to be SFF literature: no time period specified. Not unreasonably, given the sheer breadth of SFF as a field, I’d expected the questions to cover a reasonable spread of works – some old, some new, some obscure, some famous. Instead, the range was much more limited; obliviously so. Before we all swapped papers for marking, I called out to the straight, white, middle-aged male MC (who’d also written the quiz) and asked a question: was there any answer to Round 1 that was not either a Dead White Male or an Old White Male?

He paused, looking stunned. “Oh,” he said. “I hadn’t noticed that.”

The film round was more of the same: the most recent movie referenced was a work of B-grade 90s SF. Everything else was from the 50s, 60s, or – more commonly –  the 70s. No answers involved women, let alone POC. At this point, the MC decided to hand out the sheet for the picture round. When he reached our table, he pointedly said to me, “You can’t call me sexist now, because an equal number of questions on here are about women. I made sure of it.” Which is to say: on the bonus round that was about identifying SFF characters and celebrities by their predominantly naked or scantily-clad arses, three of the pictures were of women: Ellen Ripley, Catwoman, and Seven of Nine. Three others were of robots, and the remaining four were men. Surprisingly, this didn’t cheer me up.

Next was a Star Wars/Star Trek round, which distinguished itself by featuring a single answer that involved a woman. (The question: what was Seven of Nine’s real name?) By this point, four of the five tables were visibly losing the will to live: the remaining team, which boasted two straight white men in their forties or above – one of whom was close friends with the MC – was something like 30 points ahead of their nearest competitors, and it was becoming increasingly apparent, from comments made by the MC, that the entire quiz had basically been designed as a series of in-jokes between him and his mate; this did not, however, stop him from calling the losing teams “pathetic”. To make things worse, once he’d handed out the arses sheet, the MC started deliberately mispronouncing and mocking our team name when he read out the scores, something which he continued to do for the rest of the evening. As we were the only ones to received this treatment, it was quite obviously meant as retaliation.

Then came the Doctor Who round, which had two questions that referenced the reboot and the rest of which was all about the classic series; which would have been fine, was the focus not specifically centered on a handful of obscure episodes that seemed to be personal favourites of the MC and his mate on the winning team (who was, unsurprisingly, the only one who got the answers right). At the start of this round, the MC announced loudly that these questions would “separate the men from the boys”. At this, a WOC from one of the other teams – who’d also noticed the somewhat SWM-heavy material – turned to me and said, “Well, what about the girls?”

The results of this round were so heavily skewed in favour of the MC’s friend’s team that even he acknowledged there was no point in doing the extra Doctor Who questions, and skipped straight ahead to Round 5, which asked us to list the shows, books, films or series responsible for particular swear words. The answer to the first question was Battlestar Galactica, which was, from memory, the most recent work referenced in the entire quiz. After that, we marked the arses. (Most recent, and most prominent on the answer sheet: a naked Daniel Radcliffe in Equus, though how that counts as SFF, I don’t know. Oh, and the Green Lantern.)

Naturally, the team captained by the MC’s mate won by a landslide; we came last, with a score the MC called “shameful”. By then, it was after midnight: the quiz had dragged on for hours, and the overriding mood among the participants was one of exhaustion, with expressions ranging from grim to baffled. Not unsurprisingly, the most irritated people were, pretty much universally, women and POC, all of whom had been actively excluded by the increasingly hostile host. I didn’t care that we lost: I cared that, at a convention with a diverse range of attendees, and which had put some effort into promoting discussions of bias in SFF, an event that should’ve been a fun end to the proceedings and a celebration of shared experience was instead turned into an exclusionary old boys’ club.

Which is what came to mind this evening, when a not-so-snappily-titled Buzzfeed quiz – What’s Your Geek Number? – cropped up in my Facebook feed. The whole thing is 300 questions long, and in that entire, lengthy list, which mentions a hefty number of specific titles and works by name, only two are created by women: Harry Potter, and My Little Pony. Everything else listed has either been written or created by men, and it’s notable that while there are multiple questions about the purchase and possession of merchandise in the male-oriented franchises, particularly relating to comics and Magic: The Gathering, neither of these female-dominated fandoms is explored in similar detail. In fact, male fans of My Little Pony even get a bonus point for liking the show, as they can effectively answer the same question twice, while women – the show’s traditional fanbase – cannot:

Buzzfeed Brony question

Which is sadly typical of the entire thing. While fandoms, behaviours and pastimes that are commonly held to be male-dominated are discussed in detail – programming, mainstream comics, Star Trek, Star Wars, Magic: The Gathering – there’s a conspicuous absence of female-dominated media. Right at the end, for instance, there are three questions about fanfiction, and a couple of passing references to artwork based on favourite series (though the term ‘fanart’ is never used), but there’s no mention of cosplay, costuming, knitting, filking, fanzines, slash, book blogging, meta-writing, YA novels, webcomics, or any other subcultures known for having a high percentage of female geeks. Which isn’t to say that women don’t program, or read mainstream comics, or like any of the other things the quiz puts a premium on; nor am I suggesting that, at 300 questions, the whole thing was really too short. I know this is just a random Buzzfeed quiz – which is to say, a literal timewaster – and that my analyzing it like this is going to have lots of people rolling their eyes, because why the fuck would anyone take it seriously?

But here’s the thing: at a time when various geeky cultures and subcultures are still gripped by lurking paranoia about the existence of Fake Geek Girls, and where women are so often asked to prove their geek credentials in ways that men just aren’t, creating a quiz whose content perfectly mirrors the extant debates about what “real” geeks are, in a way that makes it clear that “real geek” is code for “guy”, kind of helps to demonstrate the problem. Whenever mainstream culture stereotypes geekdom as a bunch of greasy, cheeto-stained white guys in sweat pants mouthbreathing in the basement of their parents’ house, we bristle collectively, because we know it’s unfair and inaccurate – a caricature some forty years out of date. But when we ourselves make assumptions about what the “average geek” looks like, we still tend to picture some variant of this same guy, with his Boba Fett statues and Kirk v Picard t-shirt, and treat him, if not as a yardstick, then as genesis: the archetypal Patient Zero who first spread the disease of dorkness to his likeminded fellows. We think of women and POC as interlopers, latecomers, erasing the history of their participation in fandom in a bid to reassure a particular resentful, insecure cluster of white men that, even if they’re not the only fans around, they’re still the most important, because they were here first: that men like them were solely responsible, not just for fandom as a concept, but for all those geeky fields – like computing, video games, movies, science fiction and fantasy – with which it’s now associated.

Only, no: they weren’t. Not exclusively. Not by a long shot.

The first ever novel, The Tale of Genji – which was also, coincidentally, a work of fantasy – was written by Lady Murasaki Shikibu in around the year 1000, and is still being read today. In 1666, Margaret Cavendish published what is arguably the first ever work of science fiction, The Blazing World; but even if you discount her work on the grounds of obscurity, Mary Shelley is still recognised as the mother of modern science fiction for her 1818 publication of Frankenstein, which she wrote at the age of 19. The first ever crimefighting vigilante to go don a mask, a cape and a secret identity was the Scarlet Pimpernel, created by Baroness Emma Orczy in 1905. Women have been creating comic books since the late 1800s; even in the male-dominated Golden and Silver Ages, women like Nina Albright, Ruth Atkinson and Marie Severin were still known quantities. The whole concept of young adult novels – and, indeed, of teenagers as a distinct literary audience – was introduced by Sarah Trimmer in 1802, while the novel most widely held to have prompted the separate categorisation of YA in the modern era was S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, published in 1967.

The earliest surviving animated feature film, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, was written and directed by Lotte Reiniger in 1926, while the world’s first animated films were the work of Quirino Cristiani. The first female film director, Alice Guy-Blache, was working as early as 1894; depressingly, though, it wasn’t until 1991 that Julie Dash became the first African-American woman to both write and direct a full-length film that was given a general theatrical release, Daughters of the Dust.  Such is the exclusionary strangeness of Hollywood that from the 1920s to about 1940, the only woman working as a director was Dorothy Arzner; yet during the same period, the majority of screenwriters were women. June Mathis was the first female executive for Metro/MGM in 1923; Mary Pickford founded United Artists in 1919; and writer Frances Marion became the first person ever to win two Academy Awards in 1932.

The world’s first computer programmer, Ada Lovelace, wrote her famous algorithm 1842; and even in the modern world, as hard as it is to believe now, computer programming was originally considered to be a female occupation, and as such was female-dominated right up until the late 1960s. The first compiler for a programming language was developed by Rear Admiral Grace Hopper in 1952 – just one of her many pioneering developments. Modern spread-spectrum communication technology is based on an invention originally developed and patented by Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr and composer George Antheil. Many of the famous Bletchley Park codebreakers were young women; notably Mavis Batey, who cracked the Enigma code used by the German secret service while in her early twenties, thereby ensuring the success of the D-Day landings.

The majority of attendees at the first Star Trek conventions were women. It was Betty Jo Trimble who successfully campaigned to keep the original series running after it was nearly cancelled, just as it was Lucille Ball who pushed NBC to give the show a second chance after they initially rejected the pilot. The first, small Star Trek convention was the work of Sherna Comerford, while a much bigger second convention was organised by Joan Winston. The contents of the first Star Trek fanzine, Spockanalia – which was produced by Devra Langsam and Sherna Comerford – literally defined modern fanfiction, and by 1973, 90% of Star Trek fanfiction was written by women, which fandom also gave us the term Mary Sue (whose origins, contrary to popular belief, were purposefully satirical).

Women have also been involved in video games since the early days, too: to name just three, Roberta Williams co-founded Sierra Entertainment, Carol Shaw designed her first video game in 1978, and Anne Westfall programmed the hit EA game, Archon.  As early as 1993, it was reported that 64% of girls played video games for at least one hour a week, while in 2008, a study found that 94% of girls play video games. I could go on, but hopefully, I’ve made my point: that not only have women and POC always played an integral role in fandom, but that even in geeky arenas commonly held to have been white-male-only spaces until very recently, the assumed narrative is far from accurate. The histories have been glossed and elided, the narrative of white male supremacy touted as the natural result of innate interest and aptitude, rather than the purposeful consequence of exclusion, bigotry and ongoing bias.

And even in the present day, the elision continues. Everyone knows that Joss Whedon wrote Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog; what’s less well-known is that it was co-written by his sister-in-law, Maurissa Tancharoen, who also worked on Dollhouse and Avengers Assemble. We know that Mamoru Hosada is the breakaway director responsible for The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars and Wolf Children, but not that all three scripts were written by the same woman, Satoko Okudera. After decades of adoration by girls and women – decades in which the franchise has been roundly shunned as ungeeky  – My Little Pony has rocketed to prominence as both a valid fandom and within public consciousness, not because women are now being taken seriously, but because male fans have deemed the franchise worthy of their attention, thereby legitimising it. Here’s how quickly things have changed: in 2005, Penny Arcade ran a strip where a female character was mocked by male geeks for her My Little Pony casemod; come 2013, the Penny Arcade Report is running a supportive piece on bronies battling Hasbro.

Which brings me back to that stupid Buzzfeed quiz, and why, when it evoked the memory of that awful convention trivia night, I found I was physically angry. As innocuous as such small slights are in the abstract, they’re ultimately predicated on something bigger and more insidious: the ubiquity of bias, and the many ways in which ignorance feeds itself. This is why women in fandom are still suspected of being Fake Geek Girls: because the history that supports our claim to geekdom is a history too many of our peers have never learned, and have in fact been actively encouraged not to seek. Until sufficient male support legitimises female-dominated fandoms, we are forced to accept a lesser, periphery status; but once the men do take an interest, then suddenly, the women were never there to begin with.

I don’t care that some mook at Buzzfeed thinks that playing Magic: The Gathering is a more natural and obvious geeky pastime than cosplaying characters or writing fanfiction: I care that he no more seemed to realise he was making that distinction than the MC at the convention trivia night realised his quiz wasn’t just generally difficult, but specialised to the point of exclusion.Liking different fandoms is one thing, but assuming your fandoms are the only, the realest, the most legitimate fandoms, whether consciously or unconsciously, Because Dudes, is a quite another. And I, for one, am sick of it.

Hypothesis:

We have, as a society, such a completely disordered, distorted perception of female bodies that the vast majority of people are incapable of recognising what “overweight” actually looks like on a woman, let alone “healthy”. As such, we’re now at a point where women are not only raised to hate their bodies as a matter of course, but are shown, from childhood, a wholly inaccurate picture of what they “should” look like – a narrow, nigh on impossible physical standard they are then punished, both socially and medically, for failing to attain.

I don’t say this lightly. I say it because this is the only conclusion supported by the facts.

Let’s examine the evidence, shall we?

1: BMI

Overwhelmingly, the measurement used to determine whether or not someone is a “healthy weight” is the BMI, or Body Mass Index. Most people are still taught it in schools; indeed, it’s commonly used by doctors and in medical underwriting for insurance purposes,  and is also used by the WHO and various other official bodies, including many universities. It is, however, flawed to the point of uselessness – a fact acknowledged by the man who popularised its usage, Ansel Keys, who explicitly stated that it shouldn’t be used as a tool for individual diagnosis.

There are several main reasons why our cultural reliance on the BMI as a means of assessing health, and particularly women’s health, is deeply problematic:

1. It doesn’t take into account the fact that muscle is denser than fat. As such, it frequently registers athletes and bodybuilders as being obese or overweight, despite their incredible fitness, just because their bodies have greater muscle density, a prejudice which extends to anyone with significant muscle-mass. This is why, for instance, a superfit bodybuilder, Anita Albrecht, was yesterday told by an NHS nurse that she was obese and ordered to go on a strict diet.

2. It doesn’t take height or bodytype into account with any degree of accuracy. Taller individuals will always have a higher BMI regardless of their actual weight, because of the way the measurement is constructed, while shorter people will always have a lower one. Having been originally developed in Europe, using European physical norms, in the 1800s, neither does it factor in ethnicity or metabolism, which is why a Yale University student, Frances Chan, is currently being pushed to develop an eating disorder by the college’s medical administrators, all of whom are so obsessed with her naturally low BMI that they’ve assumed she must be anorexic, and are forcing her to gain unnecessary weight or risk expulsion.

3. Although women are both shorter on average than men while naturally carrying more fat, the BMI calculation doesn’t take this into account, but uses the same measurement for both men and women. In fact, it was originally formulated based on studies of white male populations only – which means that BMI is fundamentally predicated on judging female bodies against male norms. As such, and as useless as the BMI is anyway in terms of individual diagnosis, it’s especially harmful to women and POC, whose morphology and metabolisms it was never meant to accommodate.

4. It doesn’t account for age, or any change in height that occurs with age. A teenager who hasn’t yet achieved their full growth or settled into their normal, adult weight is held to the same standards as someone old enough to have begun losing height

Combine these facts together, and you have a recipe for disaster. All over the world, women of all bodytypes, ages and ethnicities are being told by physicians, family members, universities and insurance companies to try and adhere to a single, “universal” notion of bodily health that is, in fact, predicated entirely on what was considered normal for white European men in the mid-1800s.

2. Clothing Sizes

Consider the women in these two photos, all of whom, despite their wildly differing bodytypes, weigh the Australian average of 70kg, or 154 pounds:

American women who all weigh 154 pounds Australian women all weighing the average 70kg

Clearly, these women all wear different size clothes for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with their weight, and everything to do with height and bodytype. But because of the fashion industry’s obsession with tall, thin, white, ectomorphic models – women chosen, not because they’re a representative sample of the population, but so their minimal frames can better serve as coathangers for clothes that privilege a very specific aesthetic over function – we have learned to correlate small sizes with healthy bodies, the better to justify their primacy on the runway, in advertising and on screen as a healthy ideal. Never mind that modelling agencies have been known to recruit at eating disorder clinics, with store mannequins more closely resembling the bodies of anorexic girls than average women, models eating tissues to stay thin and rail-thin models photoshopped to hide their ill-health and prominent ribs: because “plus size” models – that is, women whose bodies are actually representative of the general population – are treated as a separate, exceptional category, the fiction persists that “plus size” is a synonym for “overweight”, “unhealthy” or “obese”: women too enormous to wear “normal” clothes, even though the norm in question is anything but. As such, plus-size models are frequently derided as fat, a joke, unhealthy and bad role models. Today, catwalk models weigh 23% less than the average woman, compared to 8% just twenty years ago – yet whenever this disparity is pointed out, the reaction of many is to just assume that average women must be overweight, and that using plus size mannequins will only encourage obesity. Throw in the fact that women’s clothing sizes aren’t standardised, but fluctuate  wildly from brand to brand – or within the same brand, even – and the idea of judging a woman’s health by what size jeans she wears becomes even more absurd.

For anyone still temped by the idea that the standards set by the fashion industry aren’t really that bad, and that the obesity epidemic is surely skewing statistics somewhat, let me put it bluntly: Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder. Women aged 15-24 are twelve times more likely to die of anorexia than of anything else, while 20% of all anorexics die of their illness. So when I tell you that 20 to 40% of models are estimated to suffer from eating disorders, and that only 5% of American women naturally possess a model’s bodytype, I want you to comprehend my full meaning.

Think about that, the next time you’re tempted to call the girl in the size fourteen jeans overweight.

3. Fat Health

And here, we come to the nub of the problem: the ubiquitous conflation of slenderness with health. With all the statistics I’ve just listed, I shouldn’t have to point out that one can be fantastically thin – model thin, even – and still dangerously unhealthy: among their many other evils, for instance, eating disorders can lead to bone loss and heart complications, to say nothing of the mental health component. What’s much harder to convey, given the overwhelming social incentives to the contrary, is the idea that one can be fat – and I want to talk about that word more, in a moment – and still be physically healthy. Obviously, there are also health risks to being obese, and that’s still something worth discussing, especially given that 6% of deaths are attributable to obesity. But on a daily basis, our fear of this fact, when combined with myriad other social distortions – our obsession with an extremely narrow and largely unrealistic image of female beauty, the conflation of small clothing sizes with healthy bodies, our phobia of anything “plus size”, the false reporting of BMI as an indicator of female wellness – means we’ve lost the ability to tell what obesity actually looks like.

(One cannot help noticing that, while the WHO claims the number of obese persons has doubled since 1980, this statistical leap neatly parallels the adoption of BMI as standard by that same body, which also happened in the 1980’s. Given the appalling flaws of BMI as a system – flaws which not only lead to average-sized women being categorised as overweight or obese for failing to have male proportions, but which also award higher BMI’s to taller people at a time when the average person is getting taller – it’s hard not to wonder, therefore, if it’s not that we’re gaining weight in such massive numbers, but rather that the yardstick for obesity has radically shifted. At the very least, if actual obesity is on the rise, I sincerely doubt it’s rising as much or as quickly as scaremongers seem to think it is, given the undeniable skewing of data inherent to the BMI system.)

 

Particularly for women, possession of any visible body fat whatsoever is invariably conflated with being overweight or unhealthy, and while that’s true some of the time, what it means in a practical sense is that fat, as a concept, rather than being a simple bodily descriptor, has instead become pejorative, a warning that we need to amend our ways. We talk about fatness like it’s a single, static thing, rather than a relative term: as though, if you’re fatter than someone – anyone – you must also be fat absolutely. We don’t talk about degrees of fatness, or bodytype, or distribution of mass. We LOVE big breasts (provided they’re not saggy, of course, or possessed in the expectation that you’ll be able to buy affordable bras to put them in, which – surprise! – you can’t) and we talk, gingerly, about “curves”, but always in ways that serve to disconnect them from the type of bodies to which, more often than not, such attributes belong: fat ones. Because being fat isn’t the same as being overweight, or obese; it just means not thin, and if you think “overweight” and “not thin” are synonyms, then you haven’t been paying attention. Being called fat, in fact, is often just code for “not the ideal”, which can be down to any number of things – that you have wide hips, stomach rolls, thighs that touch (our obsession with the thigh gap is dangerous in and of itself; unless you have a naturally splayed pelvis, it’s only attainable via malnourishment). Our language is full of mocking, heavily gendered terms tied to particular bits of anatomy or pieces of clothing, all of them designed to police women’s bodies: cankles, cameltoe, muffin top, whale tail, tramp stamp, thunder thighs, junk in the trunk, saddlebags, child-bearing hips. As a teenager, I remember seeing a gossip magazine mock Jennifer Aniston for having “arm sausages” – little rolls of skin at the side of her armpits – and feeling physically sick as I realised I had them, too, and must therefore be fat.

Conclusion:

We need to stop reinforcing this idea that if you’re not thin, you’re obese. As a concept, it has absolutely nothing to do with health, and everything to do with justifying our demand for idealised female beauty by mocking anyone who doesn’t meet its impossible standards as overweight. We need to stop relying on BMI to tell us how healthy we are, or not – especially for women – and accept instead that “health” is too complex a concept to be boiled down to a single calculation. Especially given the horrific biases in the healthcare system against anyone seen to be overweight, using a single glib rule to determine the most likely cause of unwellness is not only counterproductive, but dangerous. We need to stop using “fat” as a pejorative, and we sure as hell need to stop the toxic culture of eating disorders, photoshopped images and outright malnutrition currently fuelling the fashion industry.

Because society deserves better. Women deserve better.

We deserve better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

All too often, gross remarks – be they racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise abusive and vile – are excused or condoned on the grounds of irony; that because they were meant to be humorous, they can’t possibly be offensive. And if somebody is offended, then they’re either oversensitive or incapable of laughter – either way, though, the problem is with them, not the joke-teller.

Except that, no: it’s not.

Generally speaking, there are two reasons why people make ironically offensive jokes: either they think we live in such a post-racist, post-sexist, post-discriminatory world that the act of mimicking historical abuses cannot possibly reinforce those abuses, on account of how they no longer really exist; or they secretly think the stereotypes which underlie offensive jokes have some basis in reality, and are therefore funny because they’re true. The former person can be anything from genuinely well-intentioned but oblivious to belligerently convinced that society has swung so far in the opposite direction that previously oppressed groups are now the beneficiaries of so much privilege that mocking them is only fair. The latter person, however, is almost invariably bigoted, even if they’re not consciously aware of it.

As such, there are really three types of people who tell ironically offensive jokes or make offensive remarks for fun: those who think bigots either don’t exist or are so vanishingly rare as to be meaningless statistical anomalies, those who are bigots but don’t realise it, and those who embrace their bigotry as the only logical truth. If that’s true, then it’s surely important to know the exact intentions of the people both making and responding to supposedly ironic jokes – otherwise, you run the risk of laughing at yourself.

But if the remarks themselves are functionally identical regardless of who’s making them, then how can you possibly know which ones are meant ironically?

The answer is, you can’t – and for those who’d like to contend otherwise, permit me a small experiment with which to support my case.

The following statements are all, word for word, sexist comments or messages I’ve received online from total strangers. Some, by the explicit admission of the senders, were intended ironically; others, also by explicit admission, were not. Some are from self-professed sexists; others are from individuals who violently objected to my labelling them as such. Some were sent in the course of a conversation; others were out of the blue. But all were sent online, by people I don’t know in real life – meaning that you, my readers, know as much about the senders and their potential motives as I first did on receiving them.

So tell me: which ones are ironic, and which are not?

1. im gonna rape you

2. you rant and whine like a true cunt

3. Most women need to be dominated. It might not be what they think they want but its what they need, trust me they eat that shit up.

4. God, what a feminist bitch!

5. you just sound like another bitter angry man-hating lesbian

6. Petal, you have no idea how pleasurable it is being fisked by a self-righteous tea-cosy-wearing Scots feminista called “Foz”.

7. it’s not really a sexist belief that women are mentally and physically inferior to men

8. You’ll never get a husband thinking that way.

9. You’re a fat bitch with a man haircut that never got laid so you turned dyke and you’re on a feminazi rage.

10. still an ugly slag, get some surgery bitch

Laughing yet?

I’m not.

Not because I don’t have a sense of humour – I do. It’s just that this isn’t funny. This is a tiny, tiny taste of what it means to be a woman online: I have folders full of this stuff, and I guarantee that most of the people sending it don’t think of themselves as being the least bit sexist or misogynistic . Oh, no: they’re just being honest, or – god help me – comedians. But the thing is, the ironic-offensive-humour-peddlers? They’re the minority. The vast majority of the offensive nonsense I receive – that all women receive – isn’t meant ironically. It’s either meant explicitly to intimidate and frighten, or  – just as chillingly – is nothing more than a deadpan, no-nonsense glimpse into the sender’s view of women. It’s the opposite of irony.

So when you joke about how I should get back in the kitchen and make you a sandwich, you’re not being clever or witty or post-ironic. You’re offering up a pitch-perfect imitation of the sort of abuse I routinely receive, and – at absolute best – are asking me to laugh at how weird, how implausible it is, that people used to think like this! Isn’t that just crazy?

What’s crazy, friend, is that you expect me to laugh at my own belittlement.

Bottom line: ironic sexism is still sexism. Not just because women can’t tell the difference, but because misogynists can’t, either – and they think that shit’s hilarious.