Posts Tagged ‘History’

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.


The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire,
We don’t need no water, let the motherfucker burn,
Burn motherfucker, burn.

Fire Water Burn, The Bloodhound Gang*

Imagine you live in a town that’s constantly on fire. Not all of it, obviously – people still live there – but a large enough proportion of the buildings that, if you stop and look out the window, you’re usually bound to see smoke. The thing is, though, that it’s always the same old districts getting incinerated, to the point where you’re more or less used to it. You see sparks, you hear sirens, and without even bothering to investigate, you already know which bits are going up in flames – but because it’s never your neighbourhood, you’ve learned to tune it out. Sometimes, if a particular blaze gets close to a place you care about, you get angry – who are these careless firebugs, and why haven’t they been arrested? – but once the threat passes, you go back to your everyday routine, secure in the knowledge that you, at least, were never in any real danger. Even more rarely, when you wonder why your town has so many fires, you don’t give it too much thought, because the answer seems self evident: as the fires are localized, they must logically be caused by the people who live in those areas – otherwise, they’d have touched you by now.

Except, that explanation doesn’t really make sense, does it? Why would the same people be trying to burn the same old houses down, over and over and over again? Suddenly, you realise how fishy the whole situation really is, and for the first time, you start paying attention. You notice that, while some of the firefighters come from your neighbourhood, the vast majority live in the danger zones. Though the fires themselves had previously kept you from visiting the burnt-out places, you investigate, and realise they’re being more or less constantly rebuilt – from scratch, in some cases – by their inhabitants. And this troubles you, because if the fires aren’t just the result of clumsiness or malice on the part of a particular section of the populace – if the people you’d previously assumed were setting them are, in fact, engaged in a constant struggle to put them out – then why are there so many? And as you sit in your pristine, fire-free district, you suddenly notice something else: the contempt in which the fires and their victims are held by many of your neighbours. Whenever they see smoke, they sigh and tut about how “those people” are forever making a fuss about nothing, and can’t they just learn to ignore it all? If a firefighter passes through, they mutter darkly about “vultures” and “naysayers” – because clearly, as these people make a living from dealing with tragedy, they must therefore be invested in creating it. When the sirens wail, they don’t rush to help, but  sit back and lament the regularity with which their peace is broken. After all, it’s never their homes on fire, so they’re not the ones making the town look bad by constantly drawing attention to its failings.

All of this makes you feel uneasy; terribly so. You love your town – you’ve lived here all your life – but up until now, the fires have seemed a background issue. You’ve tuned them out, focussing instead on the unburnt parts: the classic architecture (smoke-stained and outdated though some of it undeniably is), the welcoming local culture (provided nobody mentions arson), the gorgeous parks (in the fire-free zones), the unique history. But if everything’s so wonderful, then why is there so much you’re discouraged from talking about? No longer content to assume that the firefighters must also be firestarters, you finally ask them obvious question: who or what are they really battling?

Carelessness and malice, is the answer – just not, by and large, from the denizens of the districts most affected. Lit cigarettes discarded by passing motorists (whose cars, coincidentally, bear a striking resemblance to those driven by your neighbours), children whose houses have never burned deciding to play with matches (though not, of course, in their own homes), the occasional pyromaniac setting fires to garner attention (the bigger the fuss, the better), and, very rarely, twisted criminals looking to cause some damage. The knowledge sits in your chest like a weight. Are my people always the villains? you ask. And: Don’t you ever burn yourselves? 

The chief firefighter sighs, as though she expected the question. She tells you: yes, many of your people help us. They do good works, and they speak for us in the unburnt districts, where we struggle to make ourselves heard, and that’s a very valuable thing. But some of them want rewards we’re in no place to give – nor should we need to. They think that, because their own homes aren’t threatened, they don’t really have to help, which means their time and effort are worth more than ours. Even if their skills are lesser, they’ll push our firefighters out of the way, more concerned with looking good alone than doing good as part of a team. And yes, we sometimes burn ourselves – of course we do! Pyromanics and criminals pop up everywhere, and accidents can happen to anyone. But because we live amidst fires, we take greater care not to set them by accident; we teach our children how to fight them, how to avoid them, and why you should always be wary of the danger they pose. We talk about fire safety, even when we’d rather be doing something else, because if we don’t, who will? Whereas your people, by and large, never learn those lessons at home. They only see that our districts burn, and so, when they want to play with fire, they come to us, and laugh when we take it seriously. And if we say to them, “This is all part of your town, too!”, they tell us, “Not really. Your bits are too burned to matter.” They don’t want us to fight for what’s ours, but they don’t want us to move into their parts, either.

So then you ask her, Why do you stay? If it’s all so terrible, why not move to another town?

Her answer is simple: Because we helped to build this place. We love it here, too. It’s just that we often love it for different reasons, and if we go, then who else will remember why they matter?

And that’s when you realise you have a choice: to keep on pretending there’s nothing wrong, or to grab a hose and start fighting fires.

This metaphor has been brought to you by The Committee Of People Who Are Sick Of Being Told To “Calm Down” About Stuff That Actually Matters, Because Pointing Out When Something’s On Fire  Isn’t The Same As Burning It Yourself: Seriously, Why Is This So Difficult To Understand? (And Also, While We’re On The Topic, Do You Really Think We Find This Process Enjoyable? I’m Sorry You’re Sick Of Hearing About It, But We’re Even More Sick Of Having Our Stuff Incinerated, Which Is Really Sort Of Worse.)  

*Though these specific lyrics are originally by Rock Master Scott & The Dynamic Three.

Hot on the heels of the Jonathan Ross/Hugo Awards fiasco, Baen publisher Tony Weisskopf has written a post, The Problem of Engagement, which has gone up both at the Baen Books site and as a guest post on the blog of Sarah A. Hoyt, a Baen author. Though ostensibly calling for unity in fandom, Weisskopf’s piece has thus far had the exact opposite effect. Already, the piece has provoked a great deal of commentary, both on Twitter and elsewhere – these posts by John Scalzi and Ana of the Book Smugglers are both good examples – and, if you give it a read, it’s not hard to see why.

It begins as follows:

The latest fooforaws in the science fiction world have served to highlight the vast cultural divide we are seeing in the greater American culture. SF, as always, very much reflects that greater culture.

On its own, this might seem like a fairly innocuous statement to make – until you read further on, to the penultimate paragraph, and find this:

…SF is mirroring the greater American culture. Our country is different because it, like science fiction fandom, was built around an idea—not geographic or linguistic accident, but an idea—we hold these truths to be self evident. And it is becoming more and more obvious that the two sides of American culture no longer share a frame of reference, no points of contact, no agreement on the meaning of the core ideas.

Here’s my problem: intentionally or not, Weisskopf has begun by framing both SFF itself and the current tensions within the  community as being a purely American concern, grown from American politics and American culture. The fact that much of what she’s observing  stems rather from a deliberate rejection of this attitude – from the idea that SFF is a global community – seems completely to have escaped her. Which isn’t to say that internal American politics aren’t evident within fandom: obviously, given the size of the US and the breadth of its political concerns, they are. But in the age of international blogging and social media platforms, where it’s possible to communicate daily with fans and authors from all over the world; where Tor Books is about to publish Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem, the first Chinese SF novel ever translated into English; where Japanese anime and manga have so long been staples of global fandom that it’s impossible to try and deny their relevance; where award-winning authors like Nnedi Okorafor, Aliette de Bodard and Helen Oyeyemi are writing (among other things) about cross-cultural politics through an SFFnal lens; where there are whole conventions dedicated to diversity and inclusivity, like WisCon and Nine Worlds; and where many of the field’s best writers are anything but straight, white and male, then acting as though every conversation and argument surrounding these issues is simply the result of Americans misunderstanding each other is, to put it bluntly, utterly wrongheaded.

That’s the real “frame of reference” Weisskopf is missing: the ability to consider American SF as just one part of a wider whole, rather than the be-all, end-all of fannish existence.

Having thus missed one point, Weisskopf promptly goes on to miss another:

When fandom was first starting there was the “Great Exclusion Act” when a group of young, excitable, fanboys attempted to spread their political/fannish feud propaganda at the first Worldcon in New York, and were not only prevented from doing so but not allowed back into the con. All fandom was aflame with war! (The fact that this line is a cliché is also a clue that fandom is not, and never has been, a calm peaceful sea of agreement.)

The reason we have a fandom to disunite now, is because calmer heads prevailed. Bob Tucker in particular, with intelligence and humor, led fandom to the idea that it ought have nothing to do with greater world politics, but should concentrate on the thing we all loved, that being science fiction. (Mind you, his sympathies were with the ones who were excluded, but he was able to overcome his own political inclinations for the best of fandom.)

What I find most curious about this section isn’t the fact that, within the space of two sentences, Weisskopf manages to effectively contradict herself, simultaneously asserting that divisive arguments are both an inherent aspect of, and a potentially fatal menace to, fandom; it’s that she’s speaking in familiar, eye-witness language about events that happened almost thirty years before she was born. Though she carefully doesn’t say so, the “Great Exclusion Act” took place in July 1939, a mere three months before the outbreak of WWII – a time when most people, let alone most intellectuals, were rightly concerned with the links between political action and culture. That being so, it hardly seems reasonable to write off the excluded writers – all of whom were members of the Futurians, a group which included Isaac Asimov and Frederik Pohl – as little more than “young, excitable, fanboys” trying to spread “feud propaganda”. (Especially when the man doing the excluding, Sam Moskowitz, apparently had a habit of selectively interpreting facts.)

Given her fondness for Americanising the issue, let’s put things in perspective with some American history: Weisskopf is citing a conflict that took place fifty years before the invention of the modern internet, twenty-six years before the overturning of Jim Crow, twenty-four years before women became legally entitled to equal pay, and twenty-three years before  the first American state decriminalised homosexuality as a reason why modern fans should stop sullying the community with politics. Never mind that, thanks specifically to these and other startling political developments over the past seventy-five years, even American fandom is now a much more diverse entity than it was in 1939, with a commensurately greater investment in erasing such barriers to global participation as still exist: why should we bother? It’s not like science fiction is the literature of ideas or anything. Oh, wait.

The fact that fandom as an open culture survived more than seventy years is a testament to the power of that simple, uniting concept.

Yes: the concept that anyone can openly enjoy science fiction and affiliate with others who do likewise, provided they don’t live outside America or belong to any group of individuals whose rights are either currently or historically being curtailed by the US government, thereby limiting their ability to engage without being subject to abuse or discrimination.

That we are once again looking to be rift by a political divide was perhaps inevitable. But as fandom has grown, expanded and diluted itself –

By “diluted”, I assume Weisskopf means “made accessible to more non-white, non-straight, non-male persons than in 1939, on account of all the human rights they’ve been granted since then that have steadily made our community more accessible to others, whether we like it or not.”

- we may have won the überculture wars and lost our heart.  We have not been able to transmit this central precept to new fans. Geeks are chic, but somehow we’ve let the fuggheads win.

And, from my observations, this is an inevitable consequence of the creation of any kind of fandom, from tattoos to swords to us. There is a thing people like. Thing people make initial contact with each other to discuss things and thingishness. At some point a woman (and it’s usually women, no matter what the thing) organizes gatherings, and thing fandom grows bigger and better. At some point, the people who care not about things, but merely about being a big fish in a small sea, squeeze out the thing people. Sometimes thing fandom just dies, sometimes it fissures and the process is recreated. So the fuggheads always win. The only question is how long can we delay their inevitable triumph?

SF fandom has managed to stave it off for a long time. Sadly, we no longer have a Bob Tucker. We don’t have one fan who is so widely respected and loved that his pointedly humorous yet calming voice can soothe the waters. Again, simply a reflection of the greater culture. When SF was aborning, radio and the pulps created huge mass audiences for entertainment. All of fandom read and were influenced by essentially the same small pool of creative endeavor. Now we have not only 300 hundred channels of cable (and nothing on), but the vast output of the Internet, both pro and amateur. It is possible to be a science fiction fan and have absolutely no point of connection with another fan these days.

“People who care not about things, but merely about being a big fish in a small sea”? What does that even mean? Up until now, Weisskopf has ostensibly been asserting that “fuggheads” are those who think political arguments are relevant to SFF, and as such, I can’t help but view her claim that “the fuggheads always win” as lamenting the fact that SFF has progressed in parallel with society. Which is why I tend to get very twitchy around arguments about genre purity and “real” fans: because at base, they invariably constitute a rejection of change. Once upon a time, fandom consisted of a group of people who’d read and loved a finite, specific subset of works: the “thing people”, as Wesisskopf has it, and their “things”. The problem is, of course, that the number and type of SFFnal works has dramatically increased in the 75 years since the Great Exclusion, such that newcomers are now defining themselves as fans – and, by extension, the concept of fandom itself – in reference to a very different subset of offerings, which – horror of horrors! – might not necessarily include any of those beloved, original works. This is what is meant by genre purity: that fans are not fans unless they discover fandom via a strictly limited canon of historical works, an unchanging core around which all subsequent offerings must necessarily orbit. But fandom – like genre, like society, like politics – is a culture,  and no culture which lives is static. Contrary to Weisskopf’s Yeatsian fear that the centre of fandom hasn’t held, unleashing the rough beast of new SFF to slouch towards some politically correct Bethlehem, what’s really happened is this: the centre has shifted, and will continue shifting for as long as SFF remains a living entity.

For instance, a slur that has been cast at people who dare criticize the politically correct, self-appointed guardians of … everything, apparently, is that they read Heinlein. Well, Heinlein is one of the few points of reference those fans who read have. Of course we all read Heinlein and have an opinion about his work. How can you be a fan and not? The answer, of course, these days is that you can watch Game of Thrones and Star Wars and anime and never pick up a book. And there’s enough published material out there that it is entirely possible to have zero points of contact between members of that smaller subset of SF readers.

So the question arises—why bother to engage these people at all? They are not of us. They do not share our values, they do not share our culture.

Apparently, Weisskopf is unaware of the deeply ironic hypocrisy inherent in criticising the “self-appointed guardians of… everything” while taking on exactly that role to excommunicate whole swathes of modern fandom with the damning (and rather medieval) indictment, “they are not of us”.

And as for this false narrative of True Fans vs Pretenders – which categories are here defined as “those fans who read” (all of whom, apparently, have read Heinlen) and those who “watch Game of Thrones and Star Wars and anime and never pick up a book” – well. I’ve seen some pretty bizarre statements about SFF in recent years, but arguing that devotees of two of the biggest, most universally beloved and popular geek franchises plus an entire subset of cultural outpourings aren’t “real” fans has got to take the cake.

And I’m not sure there is a good enough argument for engaging them. There is only the evidence of history, which is that science fiction thrives on interaction. 

You’ll have to excuse me for thinking that Weisskopf just answered her own question, though she goes on to debate it at some length. Why should fans continue to engage each other, not just about the stories they love, but about politics and the political dimensions of SFF? Because it makes us better. We are better, both as a genre and a community, when we confront historic racism and its ongoing implications. We are better, both as a genre and a community, when we endeavour to make our conventions free from sexual harassment. We are better, both as a genre and a community, when we celebrate diversity and the global nature of SFF and fandom.  We are better, both as a genre and a community, when we acknowledge that we cannot be the literature of ideas without letting some of them change us. Yes, it can sometimes be exhausting and strange and disorienting to feel as though your beloved pastime has become nothing more than a series of scandals and angry reactions – believe me, I feel it too. The tectonic plates of fandom are shifting beneath our feet, and that can often lead to fire and explosions. But what’s happening isn’t the End of Days. We’re changing, evolving along with culture and the rest of human endeavour. By demonising the new dimensions of fandom, you’re not keeping the foundations pure and your devotion true – you’re dooming yourselves to extinction, like a species that feeds on a rapidly vanishing food source.

So the core of science fiction, its method, is still a valid way of creating the cultural artifacts we want. But is it necessary to engage those of differing political persuasions to get this method? I feel the answer is probably yes. You don’t get a conversation with only one opinion, you get a speech, lecture or soliloquy. All of which can be interesting, but not useful in the context of creating science fiction. But a conversation requires two way communication. If the person on the other side is not willing to a) listen and b) contribute to the greater whole, there is no point to the exercise.

I quite agree. The problem is that Weisskopf and I apparently disagree on what constitutes “the greater whole”. Those of us who view SFF as a global concern are trying to expand its horizons, seeking stories from a greater range of perspectives, voices and contexts than we’ve ever had before; and of necessity, that means pushing past boundaries – both political and narrative – that were previously seen as the limits of the genre. But it’s these same boundaries that Weisskopf and other traditionalists ultimately want to enforce, drawing a tight, neat circle around that same old subset of stories and interactions to make an immutable centre, only expanding the perimeter after enough time has passed that nothing brought within it could possibly be considered radical, in the sense of being upsetting or unfamiliar. Even if we don’t read him ourselves – and some of us do, and some of us don’t – nobody in the global camp has ever said that reading Heinlen doesn’t make you a real fan, because he’s not the right kind of author; but plenty of people in Weisskopf’s position have said exactly that about the works of N. K. Jemisin, or Faith Erin Hicks, or Hayao Miyazaki, or any number of other creators, because they’re not pure enough. I’d rather fandom be a space for anyone to pass through,  no matter how briefly, enjoying what they like and bringing new things with them, than a zealously-guarded kingdom of roadblocks manned by gatekeepers who demand to see your Tolkien Credentials before letting you inside.

And yet, I can’t help but think that at some point, you have to fight or you will have lost the war. The fight itself is worth it, if only because honorable competition and conflict leads to creativity, without which we, science fiction, as a unique phenomenon, die.

This, then, is the real problem of engagement: that fandom isn’t apolitical, and never was. The idea that debate within the community is fine, provided you don’t go bringing politics into it, is a holdover from the days when politics, by virtue of actively excluding so many different and dissenting people, was therefore considered optional by everyone else – an exterior pursuit wholly disconnected from the business of everyday living. But political debate is only considered optional by those so obliviously content with the privileges afforded them by the status quo as to not understand how any further social change could constitute an improvement, on the basis that it either fails to benefit them directly or appears to diminish their power. As such, the current mania for protecting SFF from politics is synonymous with attempting to protect it from reality. Because it can’t be done, you end up instead with a group of people who’ve managed to convince themselves that their politics aren’t politics, but neutral defaults, angrily decrying those who admit their politics openly as the wilful contaminants of some sacred, apolitical space – as if SFF was ever such a sterile, boring thing! As with the devil, the greatest trick privilege ever pulled was convincing its beneficiaries that it doesn’t exist – but all they really need to do is peek behind the curtain.

Three days ago, Kameron Hurley wrote an amazing piece on the erasure of women’s stories in particular, but especially their contribution to combat, in the course of which she linked to something I wrote last year about default narrative settings. The response to her article – and, by way of the domino effect, to mine – has been overwhelmingly positive, which is both encouraging and wonderful. This being the internet, however, there’s also been some reactive dissent, some of it outrageously trollish (as per one Redditor’s complaint that “not every book has to appeal to females and you have the entire romance genre if you want to read from a females point of view,” which, AUGH), but also a special type of defensive hostility that manages to completely miss the point – in this case, for instance, by asserting that, as the majority of soldiers are still male, it’s a fantasy to pretend that the female ones matter. And as this is an argument whose variants I’ve encountered a lot – not only in response to my PSA post, but generally elsewhere – it’s one I’d like to properly address.

So: Yes. The majority of soldiers in history have been male – that fact is not in contention. Nor am I arguing that women in history never experienced sexism, or that discrimination on the basis of race, class or sexual orientation never kept anyone down. What I am saying, though, is twofold: firstly, that our popular notions of how historical prejudice worked are not always accurate (or are, at the very least, prone to oversimplification), and that this is worth examining, especially in instances where most of what we think we know about history comes from fictional extrapolations of it which are themselves inspired by earlier fiction; and secondly, that acknowledging the reality of historical prejudice is neither the same thing as saying that nobody ever overcame it, nor as believing that such prejudice is inherent to every possible permutation of sentient society. By which I mean: whatever you believe about history, unless you think that human beings are predestined to perpetrate specific injustices regardless of the setting in which they find themselves (which is incredibly depressing, and also intellectually suspect, when you consider the extent to which culture is shaped by context), then admitting the existence of historical prejudices doesn’t obligate you to incorporate them in your fictional worlds.

But, says my hypothetical interlocutor, what about realism? Aren’t all these examples you’re giving me about lady soldiers and crossdressing spies ultimately just outliers and exceptions to the norm? 

To which I say: if your definition of realism hinges on idea that foregrounding a perceived minority is inherently unrealistic, then firstly, I’m going to question whether you’ve ever actually read a fantasy novel, and secondly, fuck you.

No, seriously: have you ever fucking read a fantasy novel? All the oldest, most beloved tropes of epic fantasy are predicated on the idea of taking some impossible scenario, unusual person and/or mythical creature, and then writing an entire fucking story about them – preferably all at once! You think real history was littered with bastard princes raised in secret by wise monks or noble farmers and then sent off on quests to obtain the Magic Sword of Destiny? You think sexy assassins are ten a penny? Do you even know how many fantasy stories explicitly establish the incredibly rarity of dragons, and then spend the rest of the fucking novel trekking to meet them? Are you even reading the same genre as me?

Fantasy is all about foregrounding outliers – quite often, in fact, it does little else. So when you sit there, straight-faced, and tell me you couldn’t get into Novel X because the main character was a black female pirate and that’s so unrealistic, what you’re actually saying is, the only exceptional people I want to fantasise about are the ones who look like me. Because the thing is,  if you’re making this argument in the first place? Then the chances are astronomically good that you’re either a straight white cisgendered male or someone who checks at least one of those boxes – which is to say, someone who sees themselves so well represented in narrative that it’s downright unusual to encounter the alternative. And thanks to the prevalence of those sorts of stories, it’s easy to slip into justifying their monopoly by assuming that any departure from the norm would be, on some fundamental level, unrealistic. I mean, why else call it normal if it’s not the base state of being, right?

Except, no, it’s not. On a global scale, white people are an ethnic minority. Women make up half the population of Earth. Straight away, that’s two of your apparently immutable majority axes defeated by basic math – and as for the rest? Let me put it this way: of all the people on this planet, two percent are naturally blonde, while one percent are natural redheads (and before you ask, no: that doesn’t correlate directly with having light skin – genetically, you can have pretty much any combination on offer). That might sound like a comparatively small number – and yet, if I were to do a random tally of the number of blonde and redhaired protagonists in SFF novels, I’ll bet you I could hit over a hundred just from the books in my house. Given that there are at least as many QUILTBAG persons as redheads worldwide – if not more than all the blondes and auburns put together, the data being understandably hard to measure – then statistically, they ought to have equal representation in the foreground of SFF novels. That would, after all, be only realistic. And yet, if I were to do a similar sweep of the books in my house, I doubt I’d find even a quarter as many such protagonists. We foreground what seems realistic to us, is what I’m saying – but that doesn’t mean our perception of reality is either all-encompassing or accurate.

 

So, yes. Sometimes, when we’re talking about amazing women or queer individuals in history, we’re talking about anomalies. Sometimes – but not nearly as often as you’ve been trained to think. And even if they are outliers, who the fuck cares? Stories about determined underdogs overcoming adversity to do awesome things and make their mark on history are some of the best ones out there. But you know what? That doesn’t make them the only stories you can realistically tell about members of perceived or actual minority groups. The fact that there were incredible women in history who took up swords and played at politics doesn’t diminish the narrative potential of those women who managed their families and held the fort instead – in fact, those two groups aren’t even mutually exclusive. Human beings are versatile creatures, and as rich a source of inspiration as history is for SFF stories, it’s not the be-all, end-all of what’s possible. The only limit is your imagination – or rather, the biases with which you’re content to constrain it.

 

Victorian Women SmokingImage taken from tumblr.

Recently, SFF author Tansy Rayner Roberts wrote an excellent post debunking the idea that women did nothing interesting or useful throughout history, and that trying to write fictional stories based on this premise of feminine insignificance is therefore both inaccurate and offensive. To quote:

“History is not a long series of centuries in which men did all the interesting/important things and women stayed home and twiddled their thumbs in between pushing out babies, making soup and dying in childbirth.

History is actually a long series of centuries of men writing down what they thought was important and interesting, and FORGETTING TO WRITE ABOUT WOMEN. It’s also a long series of centuries of women’s work and women’s writing being actively denigrated by men. Writings were destroyed, contributions were downplayed, and women were actively oppressed against, absolutely.

But the forgetting part is vitally important. Most historians and other writers of what we now consider “primary sources” simply didn’t think about women and their contribution to society. They took it for granted, except when that contribution or its lack directly affected men.

This does not in any way mean that the female contribution to society was in fact less interesting or important, or complicated, simply that history—the process of writing down and preserving of the facts, not the facts/events themselves—was looking the other way.”

The relevance of this statement to the creation of SFF stories cannot be understated. Time and again, we see fans and creators alike defending the primacy of homogeneous – which is to say, overwhelmingly white, straight and male – stories on the grounds that anything else would be intrinsically unrealistic. Contrary to how it might seem at first blush, this is not a wholly ironic complaint: as I’ve recently had cause to explain elsewhere, the plausibility of SFF stories is derived in large part from their ability to make the impossible feel realistic. A fictional city might be powered by magic and the dreams of dead gods, but it still has to read like a viable human space and be populated by viable human characters. In that sense, it’s arguable that SFF stories actually place a greater primacy on realism than straight fiction, because they have to work harder to compensate for the inclusion of obvious falsehoods. Which is why there’s such an integral relationship between history and fantasy: our knowledge of the former frequently underpins our acceptance of the latter. Once upon a time, we know, there really were knights and castles and quests, and maps whose blank spaces warned of dragons and magic. That being so, a medieval fantasy novel only needs to convince us that the old myths were true; that wizards and witches existed, and that monsters really did populate the wilds. Everything else that’s dissonant with modern reality – the clothes, the customs, the social structure – must therefore constitute a species of historical accuracy, albeit one that’s liberally seasoned with poetic license, because that vague, historical blueprint is what we already have in our heads.

But what happens when our perception of historical accuracy is entirely at odds with real historical accuracy? What happens when we mistake our own limited understanding of culture – or even our personal biases – for universal truths? What happens, in other words, when we’re jerked out of a story, not because the fantastic elements don’t make sense, but because the social/political elements strike us as being implausible on the grounds of unfamiliarity?

The answer tends to be as ugly as it is revealing: that it’s impossible for black, female pirates to exist anywhere, that pixies and shapeshifters are inherently more plausible as a concept than female action heroes who don’t get raped, and that fairy tale characters as diverse as Mulan, Snow White and Captain Hook can all live together in the modern world regardless of history and canon, but a black Lancelot in the same setting is grossly unrealistic. On such occasions, the recent observation of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz that “Motherfuckers will read a book that’s 1/3rd elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they (white people) think we’re taking over” is bitingly, lamentably accurate. And it’s all thanks to a potent blend of prejudice and ignorance: prejudice here meaning the conviction that deliberately including POC, female and/or LGBTQ characters can only ever be a political action (and therefore an inherently suspicious one), and ignorance here meaning the conviction that the historical pervasiveness of sexism, racism and homophobia must necessarily mean that any character shown to surpass these limitations is inherently unrealistic.

Let’s start with the latter claim, shall we?

Because as Roberts rightly points out, there’s a significant difference between history as written and history as happened, with a further dissonance between both those states and history as it’s popularly perceived. For instance: female pirates – and, indeed, female pirates of colour – are very much an historical reality. The formidable Ching Shih, a former prostitute, commanded more than 1800 ships and 80,000 pirates, took on the British empire and was successful enough to eventually retire. There were female Muslim pirates and female Irish pirates – female pirates, in fact, from any number of places, times and backgrounds. But because their existence isn’t routinely taught or acknowledged, we assume them to be impossible. The history of women in the sciences is plagued by similar misconceptions, their vital contributions belittled, forgotten and otherwise elided for so many years that even now, the majority of them continue to be overlooked. Ada Lovelace and Marie Curie are far from being exceptions to the rule: Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Leise Meitner and Emmy Noether all contributed greatly to our understanding of science, as did countless others. And in the modern day, young female scientists abound despite the ongoing belief in their rarity: nineteen-year-old Aisha Mustafa has patented a new propulsion system for spacecraft, while a young group of Nigerian schoolgirls recently invented a urine-powered generator. Even the world’s first chemist was a woman.

And nor is female achievement restricted to the sciences. Heloise d’Argenteuil was accounted one of the brightest intellectuals of her day; Bessie Coleman was both the first black female flyer and the first African American to hold an international pilot’s licence; Nellie Bly was a famed investigative journalist, not only travelling around the world solo in record time (in which adventure she raced against and beat another female reporter, Elizabeth Bisland), but uncovering the deplorable treatment of inmates at Blackwell Asylum by going undercover as a patient. Sarah Josephine Baker was a famous physician known for tracking down Typhoid Mary, tirelessly fighting poverty and, as a consequence, drastically improving newborn care. And in the modern day, there’s no shortage of female icons out fighting racism, sexism, homophobia and injustice despite the limitations society wants to impose on them: journalist Marie Colvin, who died this year reporting on the Syrian uprising; Burmese politician and activist Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent some 15 years as a political prisoner; fifteen-year-old Malala Yousafzai, who survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban for her advocacy of female education; and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakul Karman, who jointly won last year’s Nobel Peace Prize for their work in support of women’s rights.

But what about historical women in positions of leadership – warriors, politicians, powerbrokers? Where do they fit in?  The ancient world provides any number of well-known examples – Agrippina the Younger, Cleopatra, Boudica, Queen Bilquis of Sheba, Nefertiti – but they, too, are far from being unusual: alongside the myriad female soldiers throughout history who disguised themselves as men stand the Dahomey Amazons, the Soviet Night Witches, the female cowboys of the American west and the modern Asgarda of Ukraine; the Empress Dowager Cixi, Queen Elizabeth I and Ka’iulani all ruled despite opposition, while a wealth of African queens, female rulers and rebels have had their histories virtually expunged from common knowledge. At just twenty years old, Juana Galan successfully lead the women of her village against Napoleon’s troops, an action which ultimately caused the French to abandon her home province of La Mancha. Women played a major part in the Mexican revolution, too, much like modern women across Africa and the Middle East, while the Irish revolutionary, suffragette and politician Constance Markievicz, when asked to provide other women with fashion advice, famously replied that they should “Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank, and buy a revolver.” More recently still, in WWII, New Zealander Nancy Wake served as a leading French resistance fighter: known to the Gestapo as the White Mouse, she once killed an SS sentry with her bare hands and took command of a maquis unit when their male commander died in battle. Elsewhere during the same conflict, Irena Sendler survived both torture and a Nazi death sentence to smuggle some 2,500 Jewish children safely out of the Warsaw ghetto, for which she was nominated for a Nobel peace prize in 2007.

And what of gender roles and sexual orientation – the various social, romantic and matrimonial mores we so frequently assume to be static, innate and immutable despite the wealth of information across biology and history telling us the opposite? Consider the modern matrilineal society of Meghalaya, where power and property descend through matrilineal lines and men are the suffragettes. Consider the longstanding Afghan practice of Bacha Posh, where girl children are raised as boys, or the sworn virgins of Albania – women who live as and are legally considered to be men, provided they remain chaste. Consider the honoured status of Winkte and two-spirit persons in various First Nations cultures, and the historical acceptance of both the Fa’afafine of Samoa and the Hijra of India and South-East Asia. Consider the Biblical relationship described in the Book of Samuel between David and Jonathan of Israel, the inferred romance between Alexander the Great and Hephaestion, and the openly gay emperors of the Han Dynasty – including Emperor Ai of Han, whose relationship with Dong Xian gave rise to the phrase ‘the passion of the cut sleeve’. Consider the poetry of Sappho, the relationship between Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein, the tradition of normative, female-female relationships in Basotho, and the role of the Magnonmaka in Mali – nuptial advisers whose teach women how to embrace and enjoy their sexuality in marriage.

And then there’s the twin, misguided beliefs that Europe was both wholly white and just as racially prejudiced as modern society from antiquity through to the Middle Ages – practically right up until the present day. Never mind that no less than three Arthurian Knights of the Round Table – Sir Palamedes, Sir Safir and Sir Segwarides – are canonically stated to be Middle Eastern, or the fact that people of African descent have been present in Europe since classical times; and not just as slaves or soldiers, but as aristocrats. The network of trade routes known collectively as the Silk Road that linked Europe with parts Africa, the Middle East, India and Asia were established as early as 100 BC; later, black Africans had a visible, significant, complex presence in Europe during the Renaissance, while much classic Greek and Roman literature was only preserved thanks to the dedication of Arabic scholars during the Abbasid Caliphate, also known as the Islamic Golden Age, whose intellectuals were also responsible for many advances in medicine, science and mathematics subsequently appropriated and claimed as Western innovations. Even in the eighteen and nineteen hundreds, it’s possible to find examples of prominent POC in Europe: Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, was of Creole descent, as was Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the famous British composer, while Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole was honoured alongside Florence Nightingale for her work during the Crimean War.

I could go on. As exhaustive as this information might seem, it barely scratches the surface. But as limited an overview as these paragraphs present, they should still be sufficient to make one very simple point: that even in highly prejudicial settings supposedly based on real human societies, trying to to argue that women, POC and/or LGBTQ persons can’t so much as wield even small amounts of power in the narrative, let alone exist as autonomous individuals without straining credulity to the breaking point, is the exact polar opposite of historically accurate writing.

Which leads me back to the issue of prejudice: specifically, to the claim that including such characters in SFF stories, by dint of contradicting the model of straight, white, male homogeneity laid down by Tolkien and taken as gospel ever since, is an inherently political – and therefore suspect – act. To which I say: what on Earth makes you think that the classic SWM default is apolitical? If it can reasonably argued that a character’s gender, race and sexual orientation have political implications, then why should that verdict only apply to characters who differ from both yourself and your expectations? Isn’t the assertion that straight white men are narratively neutral itself a political statement, one which seeks to marginalise as exceptional or abnormal the experiences of every other possible type of person on the planet despite the fact that straight white men are themselves a global minority? And even if a particular character was deliberately written to make a political point, why should that threaten you? Why should it matter that people with different beliefs and backgrounds are using fiction to write inspirational wish-fulfillment characters for themselves, but from whose struggle and empowerment you feel personally estranged? That’s not bad writing, and as we’ve established by now, it’s certainly not bad history – and particularly not when you remember (as so many people seem to forget) that fictional cultures are under no obligation whatsoever to conform to historical mores. It just means that someone has managed to write a successful story that doesn’t consider you to be its primary audience – and if the prospect of not being wholly, overwhelmingly catered to is something you find disturbing, threatening, wrong? Then yeah: I’m going to call you a bigot, and I probably won’t be wrong.

Point being, I’m sick to death of historical accuracy being trotted out as the excuse du jour whenever someone freaks out about the inclusion of a particular type of character in SFF, because the ultimate insincerity behind the claim is so palpable it’s practically a food group. I’m yet to see someone who objects to the supposed historic inaccuracy of, for instance, female cavalry regiments (which – surprise! - is totally a thing) raise similarly vehement objections to any other aspect of historically suspicious worldbuilding, like longbows in the wrong period or medical knowledge being too far advanced for the setting. The reason for this is, I suspect, simple: that most people with sufficient historical knowledge to pick up on issues like nonsensical farming techniques, the anachronistic presence of magnets in ancient settings and corsetry in the wrong era also know about historical diversity, and therefore don’t find its inclusion confronting. Almost uniformly, in fact, it seems as though such complaints of racial and sexual inaccuracy have nothing whatsoever to do with history and everything to do with a foggy, bastardised and ultimately inaccurate species of faux-knowledge gleaned primarily – if not exclusively – from homogeneous SFF, RPG settings, TV shows and Hollywood. And if that’s so, then no historic sensibilities are actually being affronted, because none genuinely exist: instead, it’s just a reflexive way of expressing either conscious or subconscious outrage that someone who isn’t white, straight and/or male is being given the spotlight.

Because ultimately, these are SFF stories: narratives set in realms that don’t and can’t exist. And if you still want to police the prospects of their inhabitants in line with a single, misguided view of both human history and human possibility, then congratulations: you have officially missed the point of inventing new worlds to begin with.

Don’t let the title put you off. This isn’t what you think.

With few exceptions, there comes a point in every little girl’s life when she first suffers exclusion on the basis of gender. For me, this happened regularly in primary school sports: the boys didn’t like it when I wanted to play cricket, and would actively gang up to ensure I was either kept away from the bat or relegated to the furthest reaches of the outfield. Children aren’t paragons of political correctness: unlike later in life, I knew definitively then that gender was the reason for this behaviour, because I was openly told as much. Over and over again, whether it was soccer or cricket or handball or football or some other thing the boys were doing, I had to fight for inclusion, because even at the tender ages of seven and eight and nine, boys knew that girls were no good at sport; that my presence on the field, let alone my desire to play, was aberrant, and that my foregone incompetence would spoil it for the rest of them.

This isn’t the only way it can happen. Some of the exclusion is even orchestrated by adults, who, whether intentionally or not, project onto children their subconsciously-absorbed ideas about who should be doing what. Don’t play with the truck, dear – it’s for boys. Wouldn’t you rather wear a dress? Only boys have short hair; yours is lovely and long. The inverse happens too, of course, and to equal detriment: in fact, when adults police the behaviour of children, the crackdown on boys who behave in feminine ways is far more severe than what transgressing girls experience, with the result that boys are much more likely to be mocked and policed by their peers, too, and from an earlier age. My own experiences bear this out: only at high school was I ostracized for being masculine. Prior to that, none of my female friends ever minded my tomboyishness – but from the earliest years of primary school, my male friends were actively persecuted by other boys for hanging around with a girl.

The above scenarios are not atypical. Thanks to the hyper-gendering of children’s toys, clothes, television shows, picture books, dress-up costumes and perceived interests, the basic rules of childhood play are rife with learned gender politics. The ubiquity of school-sanctioned sports and games – that is, things boys are stereotypically meant to be good at – during primary education, especially when placed against the comparative dearth of stereotypically girlish activities, means that the dynamics of exclusion work primarily against girls. This is because, while boys are seldom confronted with or encouraged to participate recreationally in ‘feminine’ activities, girls are regularly taught and told to engage in ‘masculine’ ones. This means that unless, like my childhood friends, boys decide on their own initiative to befriend girls or take up ‘feminine’ activities, they may never experience gender-exclusion at school; but that girls, thanks to the gendering of sports and particular play activities, almost certainly will. Perhaps more importantly, however, this skewed dynamic means that both boys and girls are taught to associate exclusion with femaleness. In the vast majority of cases, girls aren’t penalised for behaving like boys – after all, teachers encourage them at sports, and girls are allowed to wear boyish clothing – but for being girls doing masculine things. Boys, on the other hand, are penalised both for behaving like girls AND for being boys doing feminine things. Throw in the fact that boys are invariably penalised more harshly for their transgressions than girls – adults police boys who wear dresses; peers police boys who play with dolls – and you end up with a situation where all children, regardless of gender, are absorbing the message that for many things, it’s better to be masculine and male than feminine and female.

We also teach children they live in an equal society.

Clearly, this isn’t true; and as the above should demonstrate, examples of its untruth abound in childhood. But children, by and large, are not critical thinkers, and adults, by and large, are sadly averse to questions from children that challenge the status quo. Asked whether boys can wear make-up, for instance, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume that many, if not most parents would answer that no, they can’t; or that they could, technically, but don’t; or that make-up is just for girls; or even that it’s wrong for boys to do so. And because their question has been answered in accordance with what they see in the world, most children will probably nod and store that information safely away, so that if, some time in the future, they do see a boy or man wearing make-up, they’ll instinctively find it troubling – even though their original question has long since been forgotten. And all of that only concerns gender differences: throw in the additional and equally complex problems of race, nationality, sexual orientation and culture, and you’ve got yourself a maelstrom of youthfully-learned biases.

The point is, childhood matters. A lot.

Which is where we come to the inherent problem of telling these same children, once they’ve grown into teens and young adults, that society is equal. It doesn’t help – and is, I’d contend, actively harmful – that lessons which mention equality are almost always tied to the achievements of a particular historical group (the women’s suffrage movement, for instance) rather than to the pervasive bias that made their actions necessary to begin with. This creates the false impression that, as the movement ultimately succeeded, the equality of the outcome was absolute – and as the lesson tends to be about the movement itself, rather than what came afterwards or its ongoing relevance in the present day, students are left, quite literally, with the feeling that a chapter has been closed. Even if accepting the existence of total equality as gospel means actively discounting our own experiences with inequality as anomalous, the majority of students will do so – because even though teens frequently question the relevance of school or the utility of its lessons, questioning the truthfulness of their content in the absence of external prompting invokes a far greater conspiracy.

How, then, does any of this relate to the frankly incendiary notion that teaching equality hurts men?

Because of everyone, straight, white men are the least likely people to experience exclusion and inequality first-hand during their youth, and are therefore the most likely to disbelieve its existence later in life. Unless they seek out ‘feminine’ pastimes as children – and why would they, when so much of boy-culture tells them not to? – they will never be rebuked or excluded on the basis of gender. Unless someone actively takes the time to convince them otherwise, they will learn as teens that the world is an equal place – an assertion that gels absolutely with their personal experiences, such that even if women, LGBTQ individuals and/or POC  are rarely or never visible in their world, they are nonetheless unlikely to stop and question it. They will likely study white-male-dominated curricula, laugh ironically at sexist, racist and homophobic jokes, and participate actively in a popular culture saturated with successful, varied, complex and interesting versions of themselves – and this will feel right and arouse no suspicion whatever, because this is what equality should feel like. They will experience no sexual or racial discrimination when it comes to getting a job and will, on average, earn more money than the women and POC around them – and if they stop to reflect on either of these things, they’ll do so in the knowledge that, as the world is equal, any perceived hierarchical differences are simply reflective of the meritocracy at work.

They will not see how the system supports their success above that of others, because they have been told that equality stripped them of their privileges long ago. Many will therefore react with bafflement and displeasure to the idea of positive discrimination, hiring quotas or any other such deliberate attempts at encouraging diversity – because not only will it seem to genuinely disadvantage them, but it will look like an effort to undermine equality by granting new privileges to specific groups. Never having experienced inequality, therefore, the majority of straight white men will be absolutely oblivious to their own advantages – not because they must necessarily be insensitive, sexist, racist, homophobic or unaware of the principles of equality; but because they have been told, over and over again, that there is no inequality left for them – or anyone else – to experience – and everything they have experienced up to that point will only have proved them right.

Let the impact of that sink in for a moment.

By teaching children and teenagers that equality already exists, we are actively blinding the group that most benefits from inequality – straight white men – to the prospect that it doesn’t. Privilege to them feels indistinguishable from equality, because they’ve been raised to believe that this is how the world behaves for everyone. And because the majority of our popular culture is straight-white-male-dominated, stories that should be windows into empathy for other, less privileged experiences have instead become mirrors, reflecting back at them the one thing they already know: that their lives both are important and free from discrimination.

And this hurts men. It hurts them by making them unconsciously perpetrate biases they’ve been actively taught to despise. It hurts them by making them complicit in the distress of others. It hurts them by shoehorning them into a restrictive definition masculinity from which any and all deviation is harshly punished. It hurts them by saying they will always be inferior parents and caregivers, that they must always be active and aggressive even when they long for passivity and quietude, that they must enjoy certain things like sports and beer and cars or else be deemed morally suspect. It hurts them through a process of indoctrination so subtle and pervasive that they never even knew it was happening , and when you’ve been raised to hate inequality, discovering that you’ve actually been its primary beneficiary is horrifying – like learning that the family fortune comes from blood money.

To be clear: these personal hurts are not the same as cultural disadvantages (though in the case of men being forced to adhere to a restrictive masculinity, they can certainly cause legitimate pain, distress and disadvantage, the discussion of which would merit a blog of its own). This post isn’t about bemoaning the woes of the privileged, but about making clear the circumstances under which the existence of that privilege can so often go unquestioned and unnoticed by those who have it; and to point out why, when the question of their being privileged is first raised, so many people react with disbelief and anger. I say people, because although I’ve focused this piece on the privileges of straight white men, they are not the only privileged group. Intersectionality must be a serious part of any discourse centered on equality, or else those of us who aren’t straight white men but who nonetheless enjoy privilege will only be training ourselves to unsee our advantages in just as problematic and damaging a way.

We all, right now, need to stop the pretense that the world is anything near an equal place. Sexism, racism and homophobia are not only commonplace, but actively institutional. Universal suffrage and the civil rights movement are not, and never have been, the be-all, end-all of either our legal or cultural freedoms. Fraternities of straight white men have equality – but when you consider that this selfsame group has majority control of Western government, it shouldn’t be hard to understand the ubiquity of the lie that everyone else has it, too. The only way to fight for equality is to acknowledge that we don’t yet have it – and to admit that sometimes, our self-perception, no matter how well-intentioned, is the very thing at fault.

Because teaching equality doesn’t just hurt men. It hurts everyone.

OK SO.

I’m writing right now, it’s late, I don’t have time for a full post explaining why Avatar: Legend of Korra is balls-out awesome, plus and also we’re only two episodes in, and I’d love to have a bit more plot-arc under my belt before I attempt such blogging.

BUT.

The second Katara came on screen in episode one? I started crying – a pattern which repeated itself through each of her appearances. And it’s not like I’m someone who never cries at stories or shows or movies, because IMAGINARY CHARACTERS GET ALL MY FEELS, but there was a weight, an enormous sense of complexity to the feelings just a glimpse of Katara provoked in me – a reaction I hadn’t expected, and which, if I had, I would have assumed could be brought on just as handily by all the gifs and screenshots I’ve been seeing since the first ep leaked (which it wasn’t).

And the difference wasn’t in hearing her talk (though that was part of it) or watching her interact with Korra and Tenzin and her grandchildren (though that was part of it, too) or even seeing her crop up in narrative context rather than abstractly on tumblr (though that strikes nearer the mark).

It was being hit – viscerally, powerfully – by the sense of her as a person, as someone whose youth and formative years I knew by heart, who had lived through the long, rich narrative of her own adventures and survived to become a woman, a waterbending master, a mentor, a mother, a grandmother and a widow, and yet who was giving way gracefully to the new generation: a human grace note in someone else’s story. And even though Korra knew who Katara was and understood the significance of the role she’d played in shaping her world, it was somehow me, the invisible viewer, who had the greater claim on her kinship; because for me – for us – the years of her life had passed in a blink, and in her smile and humour we saw the echoes and strength of a girl that Korra could never know.

And it brought me to tears, because this is the thing that stories do that the real world never can: they show us first-hand the passage of generations, how young men and women grow old and change, and in so doing remind us of all the things in history we can never truly see. Because even though I know my grandmother is an extraordinary woman – that she defied her Irish Catholic family to marry my English Protestant grandfather; that when her husband turned anti-Japanese after the deaths of his friends in WWII, she defied his hurt and taught English to Japanese refugees; that she worked as a gemologist, cutting and polishing precious stones, and learned to paint, and raised two children, and wept when her daughter was able to attain the university education she could never have, and who just before my wedding became a widow – I cannot, not matter how great my empathy, reach into the past and watch the days of her youth unfold. I can glimpse it in photographs; I can search for it in her stories; I can imagine it through her actions.

But I cannot live it the way I can live the fictional growth of a fictional girl who is reaching the end of her beautiful, fictional life. And so I cry, because just for a moment – when I look at age and remember youth – I can almost touch the wealth and the depth of my grandmother’s hidden life.

She turns ninety this month; she was born in 1922. Not long ago, I called and spoke to her on the phone, and when the question of her age came up, she laughed – baffled, wistful, wry – and said, ‘It sounds so old! But I don’t feel any different.’

Ninety years old. And inside her, a girl of five, a girl of fifteen – an endless parade of every girl and every woman she’s ever been. I love my grandmother dearly, and yet I will never know her youth as fully as I know Katara’s, because that’s what stories do: they make magic and turn our hearts inside out, so that just for an instant, reality bends and lets us glimpse what would otherwise vanish forever.