Posts Tagged ‘Racism’

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.

Spoiler warning: All The Spoilers for Supernatural. All of them. 

Exposing yourself to certain fandoms on tumblr is like signing up for a bout with Stockholm syndrome: sooner or later, you’re going to drink the Kool-Aid. And by “drink the Kool-Aid”, I mean “become obsessed with Supernatural“, which – surprise!* –  is exactly what happened to me. I mean, I knew all about the sexism, the queerbaiting, the manpain; about the woeful representation of POC. I vowed, on the public internets, that I would never watch it – and in a universe without tumblr, I may well have done just that. But slowly, steadily, like dripping water eroding stone, the steady flow of GIFs, photosets and soulful meta wore down my resistance. Surely, I told myself, I ought to at least watch the pilot, just so I can say that I gave it a fair shot. So I did – and I wasn’t impressed. I even livetweeted my endeavour, complete with scathing criticism. The portrayal of women was so ludicrous, and Dean Winchester so obnoxious, that I didn’t make it much more than halfway through the first episode before giving up, and for a while, that was that: I’d tried Supernatural, I hadn’t liked it, end of story.

But.

Despite myself, I found that I wanted to know what happened next. Enough of my friends whose taste in shows I either shared or respected had been surprised by my reaction – had vouched for the worthiness of at least the first five seasons, despite the acknowledged problematic elements – that I started to waver. Had I been judging too harshly? My curiosity was piqued, but in the end, what tipped the balance wasn’t the recommendations of friends or the writings of strangers: it was this speech by Misha Collins – which, yes, I encountered via tumblr – in which he calls out the show’s writers for their needless use of sexist language and misogynistic tropes. Just the fact that one of the main actors was willing to both acknowledge the problem and speak about it went a long way towards reassuring me that Collins, at least, was someone whose work I wanted to support. So I made my decision: I’d give Supernatural another try, endeavouring to make it to at least Season 4, when Castiel – played by Collins – finally makes an appearance.

This decision was roughly equivalent to taking a second hit of heroin because the first one hasn’t kicked in yet.

As promised, Supernatural has a lot of problems – and I mean, a lot. (As, indeed, does heroin.) There’s scarcely a male character on the show whose defining emotional arc doesn’t hinge on his having lost his mother, wife/girlfriend and/or children, and scarcely a female character with an emotional connection to Sam or Dean Winchester who hasn’t been fridged in order to give them more angst (though in fairness, the male death toll is similarly high). Overwhelmingly, the POC characters are either exoticised, stereotyped and/or played as villains, while the queerbaiting is made all the more frustrating by the overall lack of actual queer characters. The sexist language, too, is omnipresent: if you made a drinking game of it, and took a shot whenever someone says bitch, whore, or explicitly codes weakness as female (“no chick flick moments”) and strength as male (“sack up!”), you would end up drunk after any given episode. Throughout nine seasons, but especially in the first three, almost every female character either falls squarely into one of four categories – Victim (dead or damselled), Virgin (pure and protectable), Vixen (sexy and strong) or Virago (angry and strong) – or straddles their intersections with all the subtlety of a brick to the face. Supernatural is, quite categorically, a show about straight white manpain as facilitated by dead ladies and magic – and if that were all it was, I’d never have made it through two full seasons, let alone nine.

However.

It is also a show with a sprawling, complex mythology that nonetheless manages to stay coherent and engaging as it develops. Like The X Files, it has a deft touch with humour, poking fun at its own meta and idiosyncrasies at least as often as it takes itself seriously. It strikes a solid balance between stand-alone episodes and extended arcs, and the characters – well, that’s where things get interesting. Because for all that the Winchesters are frequently situated as being traditionally masculine, even hypermasculine heroes, this isn’t their be-all, end-all.

In fact, there’s an argument to be made that Dean – whose love of classic rock, classic cars, weapons, whiskey and women makes him about as stereotypically masculine as it’s possible to be – is also an active subversion of the very masculinity he ostensibly personifies. Sometimes, this comes across as being an unintentional – but still canonical – consequence of queerbaiting: that is, of the show’s habit of putting (presumably) straight characters in homoerotic situations, or strongly implying a homoerotic subtext, without ever crossing the line into overt displays of queerness. But this practice, while deeply frustrating, also feels like a very real reflection of, and reaction to, the show’s conflicting fanbases, and to the sheer impossibility of pleasing them both – namely, of the schism between (predominantly) male viewers who tune in for the adventures of Fiercely Hetereosexual Warrior Dean Winchester, the epitome of maleness in a show that is very definitely All About Dudes, and (predominantly) female viewers who tune in for Tortured Bisexual Dean Winchester, a good man who is eighteen kinds of broken and quite clearly in love with an angel. (Or his brother. Or both. Whatever.) Uncharitably, the queerbaiting is a way of firmly committing to the former fanbase while giving the latter just enough hope to keep them invested. More charitably, it’s a way of trying to please both groups equally without doing anything that either camp could construe as unforgivable. Most likely, it’s a combination of both, which, when combined with the conservative homophobia of network executives, tends to err on the side of default straightness. Whatever the answer, Dean Winchester remains a complex enough character to defy easy categorisation – and intentionally or not, even without the problem of queerbaiting, his version of masculinity as portrayed on the show is worth interrogating; as, indeed, is Sam’s.

Right from the outset, the Winchester brothers are set up as being, if not total opposites, then temperamentally opposed. The first time I tried to watch the pilot, Dean came across as brash, obnoxious and full of himself, while Sam, whose initial distance from hunting provides the audience with an introduction to the concept, feels more sympathetic: a nice, normal guy being dragged into danger and tragedy by an uncaring sibling. But as the season – as the show – progresses, it soon becomes clear that things aren’t what they seem. Dean’s arrogance is, very explicitly, a coping mechanism, and even in Season 1, we can see the cracks. Sam, by contrast, is highly – and successfully – compartmentalised, able to set aside his past and live normally in ways that Dean just can’t. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the comparison of Dean’s attempt to live a normal life at the end of Season 5 and Sam’s attempt to do likewise at the end of Season 7. When Dean leaves, Sam is imprisoned in hell, having first extracted a promise that Dean won’t try to rescue him. Dean accedes, and goes to live with Lisa, his ex-girlfriend, and her young son, Ben – his reward for having stopped the apocalypse. But Dean, by his own admission, is a mess: he is tormented by Sam’s loss, suffering from recurrent nightmares and flashbacks as well as survivor’s guilt. When the hunting world impinges on his new life, his relationship with Lisa irreparably breaks down as he begins to exhibit the classic symptoms of PTSD: hyper-vigilance, obsessive behaviour, aggression as a fear response, and a compulsive need to control both his environment and the actions of his loved ones. Sam, however, suffers from no such baggage, despite the fact that he doesn’t know if Dean is alive or dead. He makes a new life for himself with ease, and while he does talk to his new partner, Amelia, about having “lost” his brother, it’s clear he isn’t psychologically damaged in the way that Dean is.

In fact, the only time we really see Sam undergo this level of distress in response to trauma – nightmares, impulsive behaviour, rage – in a context that isn’t directly related to his burgeoning demon powers is very early in Season 1, immediately following Jessica’s death. Which begs the question: is Sam compartmentalised because it’s an inherent part of his personality, or is it something he’s learned – a coping mechanism, the same as Dean’s bravado? I’d contend it’s a combination of nature and practise. From what we learn of Sam’s childhood in various flashback episodes, it’s clear he’s always harboured a burning desire to be normal, but it’s equally clear that the same is true of Dean, too. Both brothers have suffered from their upbringing, but whereas Sam is clearly capable of cutting himself off from his family (running away as a teenager, going to college, moving in with Amelia), Dean can never manage it. Which is, quite arguably, the consequence of his being the older brother: Dean’s entire life has revolved around protecting Sam and obeying his father, whereas Sam, who lacked those responsibilities, has a better baseline for normalcy – or at least, for self-definition in the absence of family and hunting – and therefore a better starting position from which to try and establish himself as a separate person. The Winchesters rely on each other, but while Sam depends on Dean as a person, Dean depends on Sam for his purpose, too.

Superficially, Sam is presented as being sensitive and emotional – and therefore the more stereotypically feminine of the two – while Dean is typed as tough and strong: a heroic masculine archetype. But in terms of their actual psyches, the opposite is true: Sam is compartmentalised, resilient and capable, while Dean is a wreck. Throughout the show, both brothers are repeatedly told by a slew of older men – hunters, angels and demons alike – to “stop whining” and “sack up” whenever they dwell on their problems. Any failure to do so, whether perceived or actual, is invariably criticised as being feminine, or derided by comparison to feminine behaviours. Yet at the same time, Dean’s issues are real enough that the same people telling him to “be a man” are also, at various points, genuinely worried by his refusal to seek help or tell them what’s wrong. The contradiction is not only striking, but deeply representative of the toxic burden of enforced, stereotypical masculinity. On the rare occasions when Dean does try and talk about his feelings, he is invariably mocked as weak, whiny and effeminate; but when, having absorbed these lessons, he tries to cope through drinking, self-destructive behaviour and suicidal thoughts, he is criticised – often angrily – for being an idiot. Sam likewise receives the same treatment, but to very different effect. Unlike Dean, who can’t separate himself from his work, Sam’s stress response is to leave whatever situation is upsetting him and calm down elsewhere – a much healthier approach, though one that also earns him rebuke. Time and again, when Sam gets angry, feels betrayed or is otherwise shown to be under pressure, he leaves, turning his back on his (undeniably damaged) family and ignoring other responsibilities in favour of self-care. That he is often cast as selfish, untrustworthy, traitorous and insensitive for doing this – presumably on the basis that Real Men don’t run from their problems or let their friends down, ever, no matter the personal cost – is part and parcel of the same toxic logic that romanticises male self-sacrifice and silence.

For all that Supernatural can and does act as a paean to the virtues of traditional masculinity – brotherhood, battle, stoicism, strength – whether intentionally or not, it just as frequently demonstrates why this mindset is  brutally flawed, with the worst psychological consequences of investing in its mythos – repression, loneliness, self-hatred, addiction, suicidal ideation, insecurity, worthlessness – personified by Dean Winchester. Unlike countless action movie heroes who drink their whiskey, kill the bad guys and stride manfully into the sunset without ever flinching, Dean drinks excessively to the point of attracting comment, has nightmares about his actions, and has to be rescued from danger at least as often as he does the rescuing, because half the time, his “act first, think later” policy is a self-destructive impulse rather than an actual plan. Almost, you could define the split in the Supernatural fandom as being between those who think Dean Winchester is someone to be idolised for his masculinity, and those who see him as needing help. And even now, I still can’t tell if Dean’s relationship with traditional masculinity is deliberately portrayed as compounding his traumas to the point of causing new ones, or if its implications have been hidden from the writers by cognitive dissonance and/or social conditioning. Given the number of creative voices involved, I suspect it’s both, depending on the episode – but either way, it makes for some interesting analysis.

As a duo, what makes Sam and Dean so compelling is the extent to which their personalities, strengths and weaknesses differ, not just from each other, but from first appearances. Particularly in the early seasons, much is made of Sam’s ability to successfully comfort the many grieving strangers they encounter, whereas Dean is always blunt, less adept – and less willing – to tailor his approach to the person, a contrast we’re initially inclined to see as proof of Sam’s sensitivity and Dean’s rudeness. And certainly, Sam is a caring person. But as the show progresses, his interactions become less a function of compassion and more the consequence of his being a better liar than Dean, with fewer compunctions about emotionally manipulating strangers to get the information he needs. When it comes to informational lies – credit card scams, adopting fake IDs – Sam tends to be uneasy with the deception in ways that Dean isn’t; but while Dean is happy pretending to be someone else, he doesn’t fake his emotional reactions. Broadly speaking, Dean is a situational liar and emotionally honest, while Sam is an emotional liar and situationally honest – the exact opposite of how they present.

When it comes to their relationships with women, however, another curious comparison presents itself. Without wanting to overanalyze the handful of sex scenes sprinkled throughout the show, it’s notable that Dean’s encounters, in contrast to his aggressively masculine persona, tend to be romantic, even gentle, with Dean himself often shown to be the more passive partner, while Sam is assertive and dominant to the point of being rough (as more than one person has noticed). Dean has slept with angels; Sam lies down with demons. And for most of the show, that’s not just a metaphor: the big reveal of Season 5 – that Sam is meant to be Lucifer’s vessel, while Dean is earmarked for Michael – is arguably foreshadowed by their earlier romantic pairings with Ruby and Anna, respectively. But as of the most recent season, their predestined dichotomy is turned on its head: Season 9 starts with Sam being possessed by an angel, and ends with Dean turning into a demon, a deliberate subversion that shows how far Sam has come, and how far Dean has fallen. The Winchesters have been to Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, but despite the implied promise of the lyrics to Carry On Wayward Son, they’re yet to find any peace.

What really gets me about Dean Winchester, though, is his status as the most broken of Broken Birds I’ve ever encountered – and in a show where so much else about the gender roles is regressive, it’s striking that the most ostensibly masculine character is one who’s best defined by a trope that’s overwhelmingly female-dominated. In this sense, Dean actually makes for a good case study about our perceptions of gender in stories; specifically, our tendency to hold female characters to higher standards than men, not only in terms of their actions and personalities, but in how we judge whether they’re three-dimensional or poorly-drawn tropes, and our corresponding tendency to assume male competence as a default. Right from the outset, and despite being situated as the more experienced hunter, Dean is – not ineffectual by any stretch of the imagination, but prone to the kind of error which, were he a woman, would likely be counted as signs of inherent weakness.

In the first four episodes of Season 1, for instance, Dean continuously fails to establish his fake identities with any degree of success: twice, he gets in trouble with officials who call his bluff, and twice his incompetence leads to civilians detecting the lie. In 1.1 (Pilot) and 1.4 (Phantom Traveller), it’s Sam, not Dean, who kills the Big Bad, and while he saves the child in 1.3 (Dead in the Water), the offending ghost is dispelled, not through his actions, but the self-sacrifice of another character. The only monster Dean kills is the titular villain of 1.2 (Wendigo), and in 1.4, he’s actively disarmed by his fear of flying. All of which is paired with a high degree of sentimentality: in both 1.2 and 1.3, Dean is visibly flustered by a simple kiss on the cheek, while his strongest emotional connection consists of his bonding with a child over their mutual loss of a parent. Under identical conditions, a female character would, I suspect, have to work much harder to be seen as competent: her failed bluffs would be seen as failures of intelligence compounded by a poor kill rate, while her visible terror would see her pegged as overly emotional. Which is what happens, when successive generations of terrible female characterisation condition viewers to infer the presence of gendered stereotyping on the basis of normal behavioural cues: there’s such a backlog of bullshit to work through re the portrayal of women on screen, it can be hard to step back and judge new characters on their individual merits. But because Dean Winchester is not just male, but overtly masculine, wrapped in a leather jacket and driving a Chevy Impala, we trust that he knows what he’s doing, even when we’d be well within our grounds to think the opposite.

I have more to say, but I’ll save it for another post, as this one is already considerably longer than planned. Apparently I have Feelings about Supernatural that demand expression, and that, right there, is a sentence I never, ever thought I’d be writing. TUMBLR, WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO ME?

Feel These Things

Sam Winchester - How Do I Stop

Dean Winchester - I Wish I Couldn't Feel A Damn Thing

 

 

*Or not, for anyone who’s been following my tumblr/Twitter presence for the past few weeks.

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.

 

 

I am so very tired, you guys.

I am tired, not of arguing in favour of equality, diversity and tolerance, but of having to explain, over and over and over again, why such arguments are still necessary, only to have my evidence casually dismissed by someone too oblivious to realise that their dismissal of the problem is itself a textbook example of the fucking problem. I am tired of being mocked by hypocrites who think that a single lazy counterexample is sufficient to debunk the fifteen detailed examples they demanded I produce before they’d even accept my point as a hypothetical, let alone valid, argument. I am tired of assholes who think that playing Devil’s advocate about an issue alien to their experience but of deep personal significance to their interlocutor makes them both intellectually superior and more rationally objective on the specious basis that being dispassionate is the same as being right (because if they can stay calm while savagely kicking your open wound, then clearly, you have no excuse for screaming). I am tired of seeing false equivalencies touted as proof positive of reverse sexism and racism by people who don’t understand that Lin punching Robin is not the same as Robin punching Lin if Robin is an adult pro-wrestler and Lin is a five-year-old child.

In short, I’m tired of being a female geek.

I am tired of hearing about sexual harassment and assault at conventions.

I am tired of the constant sexismracismbodyshamingharassment and belittlement faced by female cosplayers who are either deemed to be too pretty to be real geeks or not pretty enough to cosplay; who are exposed to racism and told hey’re asking to be sexually harassed by dint of wearing costumes that are overwhelmingly designed for male titillation.

I am tired of being told, either overtly or through oblivious privileged ramblings, that women make for bad writers; that we ruin genre with girl cooties, aren’t as good at proper literature, have no place in comics, shouldn’t play video games and make boring subjects in either case – which is why, whenever we do sit down and create stuff, we are reviewed less than menencouraged to adopt male pseudonyms, and frequently accosted with rape threats, death threats, bomb threats and graphic threats of pet mutilation (but then, that’s also how women are treated just for existing in the public eye). Also, we can’t review for shit – even commenting on geek culture can earn us rape threats – and if you happen to be a WOC, queer, trans, fat, disabled and/or anything other than straight, conventionally pretty and white, the amount of shit you’ll cop on a given day that intersects with of all this is astro-fucking-nomical.

I am tired of watching the trainwreck of godawful sexist and racist fuckery that is mainstream comics right now; tired of hearing about the elision of LGBTQ characters and the unrepentant vitriol of misogynistic fans.

I am tired of whitewashing, not just on book coversbut in far too many cinema adaptationsnoseriouslyI could do this all daywhat the fuck is wrong with people.

I am tired of hearing, yet again, that women don’t game; that when we do, we suck because we’d rather be out “shopping, gossiping and talking on the phone”, and are only doing it to try and impress men anyway; that sexismsexual harassment and rape culture are acceptable within gaming; and on, and on, and on.

I am even tired of writing this post, because there are hundreds, literally hundreds more links in my folders on these sorts of problems just in SFF alone, and that’s before I start talking about these issues in a broader social context. I am tired of arguing with people who cannot be fucking bothered to do the research, where “research” means “typing literally three fucking words into Google and reading what comes up”, and who instead leave angry, page-long rants in the comments any time they see someone make a reasonable fucking claim – like, for instance, that sexism still exists – without providing umpteen links to support that statement, even though spewing their poorly-reasoned vitriol all over the internet must take five times as long as actually looking that shit up to begin with.

I am so. fucking. tired.

But I am not giving up.

I started watching the Hawaii Five-0 remake on LoveFilm Instant in a fit of cynical boredom. I expected it to be hilariously terrible; I expected to get ten, maybe fifteen minutes into the first episode and then give up due to an eyeroll-induced migraine. I expected cheesy dialogue, mediocre to terrible acting from everyone who wasn’t either Daniel Dae Kim or Grace Park, cardboard characterisation and nonexistant plotting, because I mean, seriously: Hawaii Five-0 remake.  Given all my trepidations, it’s a wonder I bothered watching at all. But I also wanted to see some blue skies and tropical, non-Scottish scenery, and so I thought, why not? And yes, the first episode did managed to find not just one, but two different excuses for Grace Park to be scantily clad (first in a bikini, and then by having her strip to her underwear); and yes, the stereotype of the big fat, friendly Hawaiian guy who sells shaved ice and has one toe dipped in the criminal underworld was textbook enough to cause even someone who’s never been to Hawaii to look sideways at it; and yes, the entire premise of all these ludicrously elaborate big-time crimes being committed on a tiny island is blindingly unrealistic; but somehow, I found myself watching a second episode. And a third. And a fourth.

And now, as I’m nearing the end of season one, I’ve realised I kind of love it.

At the most basic level, the characterisation and writing work. The banter between Steve McGarrett and Danny Williams is sharp, lively and highly enjoyable, providing a solid narrative anchor for the total overthetopness of their crime-solving techniques. Their personalities clash in the usual odd-couple way, but due particularly to Scott Caan’s energetic Danny, the partnership never feels stale. The plots are, as predicted, ridiculous, but despite the fact that the comparative smallness of Hawaii makes them feel noticeably more ridiculous than they would if the show were set elsewhere, they’re otherwise no more ridiculous than the usual procedural fair, but with the added bonus that, as the show is shot on location, you get plenty of gorgeously sweeping vistas of oceans and jungles and mountains and rainbows and actual goddamn sunlight thrown in, which tends to make up for it. Daniel Dae Kim’s Chin Ho Kelly and Grace Park’s Kono Kalakaua are both meaty, well-rounded characters who, in a refreshing twist, are allowed to have a racial heritage that matters to them as people without defining them totally or nudging them into caricature territory; and even though all three Five-0 men are afflicted with Suitably Dramatic Manpain Backstories – McGarrett’s dead parents and villain-oriented vendetta; Danny’s complex relationship with his ex-wife and shared custody of his daughter; Chin’s false accusations of corruption and the subsequent implosion of his life – the main team nonetheless manages to interact in a way that feels supportive, human and everyday in all the right ways.

All of which makes the show engaging and fun, yes. But that’s not what I want to talk about.

Because: OK. If you’re like me, and you watch a lot of procedurals, then chances are, you’ve noticed how many of them reflexively try up the stakes and increase emotional investment, not just throughout the series as a whole, but particularly in the first and early episodes, by killing or damselling attractive, young, and overwhelmingly white women. To give some examples, the first episodes of Bones, Castle, House, True Blood, Angel, The Mentalist, Elementary, Sherlock, Supernatural, The Killing and Twin Peaks all involve dead women; and indeed, several of them base their entire premise, or the premise of whole seasons, around female-oriented murders. And that’s not an anomalous sample group, either: if you were to go and check the first episode of every procedural, crime or thriller/suspense oriented show of recent years, then I’d be prepared to lay good money that the vast majority of first deaths, or first imperilments, will be of conventionally attractive young white women. 

It takes Hawaii Five-0 until episode five before they either investigate a woman’s murder or rescue a damsel in distress, while the next focussed damselling of a female character doesn’t happen until episode eleven. And that might seem like an inconsequential thing, but seriously: do you know how rare that is, to be able to watch a procedural show where women aren’t being kidnapped or raped or murdered every three episodes? It doesn’t happen. But not only does Five-0 avoid the trope, it actively subverts it, producing multiple episodes where female characters thought to be victims really aren’t, or where women in vulnerable positions end up showing astonishing strength. And then there’s Kono, who, yes, is the only woman on the team, and a young, attractive one at that. But notwithstanding the events of episode one, she’s never sexualised by her colleagues – by which I mean, she’s not presented as a love interest for any of the men she works with, and again, that shouldn’t be so hard to come by in a TV show, but it is. This is a procedural without sexual chemistry; a show where a young, intelligent, kickass WOC has three older male mentors who actually fucking treat her respectfully, who don’t make comments about how hot she is, whose sex life isn’t the subject of skeevy jokes or subplots, and who gets to be her own person rather than a romantic prop for someone else. There’s even a moment in one of the early episodes where Kono remarks that of course, she’s going to be the one who has to go look after a child-witness, because she’s the woman; and she gets told that no, it’s because you’re the rookie, and that’s what rookies do – and you know what? She actually gets to be a rookie without that being an excuse for lady-incompetence or a cute way to make the sole female character less powerful: because not only do we see her demonstrate extraordinary skill, but we also see her being taught and praised by her mentors, asking for advice and receiving it, making mistakes and learning from them. Kono isn’t a sex object, she’s not a blank space and she’s not an office romance waiting to happen, and off the top of my head, I honestly can’t think of another crime show with a female character like her.

But the most important thing about Five-0 is the diversity. On the downside: so far, there haven’t been many native Hawaiians in the show, which is disappointing. But otherwise – and I cannot stress this enough – even though the main cast is two white guys and two POC, on an episode by episode basis? POC are the majority, and they appear in every possible capacity. And this is so, so significant in terms of modern procedurals, because as with the first-episode dead woman, there’s another toxic pattern common to the oeuvre, namely; that nine times out of ten, the only POC victims we see are either criminals, poor (where poor is coded to imply unworthiness) or possessed of criminal pasts, and even if we’re meant to sympathise with them, that sympathy is always filtered through the bigoted lens of accepting them despite their shady histories and/or poverty. This logic is so pernicious, it frequently extends to main characters, which is why Tara and Lafayette of True Blood, Eric Foreman of House, Kimball Cho of The Mentalist, Alfredo of Elementary, and Javier Esposito of Castle are all revealed to have criminal backgrounds and/or to have struggled out of poverty. POC characters whose personal histories are defined by neither class warfare nor illegal dealings, by contrast, are very seldom presented as victims. When POC are murdered, these stories overwhelmingly whisper to us, it’s not because they’re good people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – it’s because they lived in bad neighbourhoods, because they were poor or had criminal friends or were criminals either recently or at some point in the past; because they were gang members or illegal aliens or some other kind of Other. And as a result, these stories teach us – however subtly, unintentionally or against our better judgement – to feel less sorrow when POC are killed, and especially MOC, who are far more often portrayed as violent bogeymen than sympathetic victims. 

But Five-0 flips all that. We sympathise with illegal immigrants whose only crime is being undocumented; we sympathise with POC victims, and the families of victims, who are monied, middle-class and working class rather than exclusively poor; and, over and over again, we’re invited to identify with MOC, who are portrayed as loving, caring, peaceful, hardworking citizens – and family men, too – with enough regularity that, when we do invariably encounter POC gang members or criminals, their criminality isn’t implied to correlate with their race. Five-0 humanises POC victims in a way that no other procedural I’ve ever encountered does, and not just as a one-off, but as an actual thematic element to the show.

So, yeah. It’s still not perfect – there are other stereotypes in play, there’s zero queer representation, and I’d love it if Kono had a female mentor-character, or even just another woman, to talk to – but especially given how sceptical I was at the outset, Hawaii Five-0 has more or less floored me by casually subverting some of the most pernicious and ubiquitous tropes of the genre while still being joyfully full of explosions and car chases and scenes where Grace Park kicks ass, and it also – oh, joy of joys! – has multiple female and POC writers on staff, which, you know. Makes a damn difference.  (And also, Daniel Dae Kim’s cheekbones? YES.) So if you were on the fence or thinking of giving it a miss, maybe give it a look-see: the first episode isn’t the best, but beyond that, it’s definitely a show worth watching.   

 

Warning: spoilers, some talk of rape.

This week, despite knowing absolutely nothing about the plot, I bought Saga: Volume 1 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, for three reasons: one, I was on holiday, and no holiday is counted as such until I’ve gone bookbuying; two, as part of the Great Literary Circle of Life wherein I invariably spend all the money I earn through writing stories on acquiring stories; and three, because I remembered seeing the covering image online a while back, and it’s damned arresting. Seriously: look at this beautiful artwork!

Saga Volume 1 cover

Horns! Wings! Guns! Swords! An awesome-looking WOC exuding badassery as she openly breastfeeds her baby! There are zero things about this image that don’t make me want to read onwards. So when I say I didn’t know anything about the plot at the outset, that’s really only half-true: having seen the cover, I could identify various likely themes, but without knowing how they all fit together.

Haphazardly, is the answer. There’s a lot to like in Saga, but it’s also loaded down with a seriously unnecessary amount of problematic language – and yet, the artwork! The premise! The promise of the premise, when Vaughan isn’t busy screwing it up! The characters, sort of, for reasons that will hopefully become clear! And so on, and so forth, to the point where I have no idea whatsoever whether I’ll ignore the second volume or leap on it with greedy fingers, should I encounter it in my travels.

Allow me to explain why:

Imagine you’re picnicking at the beach, and you’ve made yourself a sandwich. All the ingredients are things you like, you’re meticulous in your assemblage, but despite all the time and care you took, the whole thing’s riddled with sand. But does that mean your lunch is ruined? Have you actually made a bad sandwich, or was its goodness simply compromised by proximity to a pervasive, gritty substance?

In this metaphor, stories I want to like are the sandwich. The beach is our culture.

The sand is white patriarchy.

And man, does it get  into everything.

Chapter 1 of Saga opens as Alana – our green-winged, blue-haired WOC protagonist – gives birth in a garage. She and her husband, Marko, are on the lam: their respective peoples are in the middle of all-out galactic war, and both are wanted as traitors. They met, we soon learn, when Alana was guarding Marko in military prison (he surrendered after his first battle, declaring himself a conscientious objector), and within the space of twelve hours found enough common ground to escape and desert, respectively, together. But all that detail is yet to come: right now, we’re watching Alana in the final stages of labour, and straight away, I have two problems with the portrayal of said event. Granted, they aren’t massive problems, but seeing as how the whole giving-birth thing is something I did myself a few months ago, the specifics are still on my mind. Thus, I have two questions: where the fuck is the placenta, and why is Alana aroused by childbirth?

I’ll freely admit that the first is a personal bugbear. I mean, hell: it’s not like I’m asking to see a closeup of the damn thing – it’s just that, once the baby arrives, Alana’s labour pretty much stops, and even though we see Marko severing the umbilical cord (with his teeth, which is played for laughs, but still, yeah, no), the perspective of the drawing implies it’s attached, first to Alana herself, and then to nothing, which kinda suggests that Vaughan just… forgot about it. But, whatever: that’s the least of my issues. Because even though it’s been reported that a small number of women achieve orgasm while giving birth (no, really), the casual insertion of the phenomenon in such a way as to sexualise a WOC while she’s in labour  – and by sexualise, I mean we see Alana biting her lip and groaning with pleasure – felt really skeevy to me, especially given the fact that the writer, Vaughan, is a straight white dude.

This assessment is further complicated when, several pages later, we’re given Alana and Marko’s backstory, during the course of which one Special Agent Gale – a white guy – describes Alana as “dim, impulsive, kind of a slut”. And, OK. I get that Gale is meant to be a Bad Guy here, which naturally colours his assessment of Alana. But that doesn’t justify the random slutshaming; in fact, it sits weirdly with the larger narrative. Vaughan has written a universe where women are soldiers, bountyhunters and revolutionaries – that is, actively taking on traditionally male roles without anyone questioning it – which, at least superficially, would seem to suggest the existence of some species of gender equality. Yet the language of the other characters not only fails to back this up, but actively suggests the opposite: that familiar, real-world sexism is so widespread in the setting as to seriously undermine the concept of female warriors. In Chapter 2, for instance, another female soldier, Lance Corporal McHenry, is asked about Alana’s reading habits. Her response? “Just stupid romances, the kind housewives buy at the supermarket. Half-naked dudes on the cover, you know.”    

Actually, no, Mr Vaughan: I don’t. Because even if I set aside the teeth-grindingly unnecessary sexism of this statement – not to mention the veiled implication, when the romance novel in question is later produced, that Alana’s decision to abandon her duty and run off with Marko was in some way caused by her choice of reading material – it’s also deeply, stupidly, pointlessly anachronistic. I mean, here we have a setting where robots can get pregnant (more of which later, because WHAT), mythic-looking humans in space wield magic alongside guns, and where wooden, sentient rocketships grow in forests, and you’re still talking about HOUSEWIVES BUYING PAPERBACK ROMANCE NOVELS AT THE SUPERMARKET. (Oh, yeah. It’s a paperback.) Fucking seriously?

This is arguably the most glaring example, but it’s far from being the only such on offer. Earlier, Special Agent Gale complains that “this app was trying to auto-update and now my whole thing is frozen” while playing with what looks suspiciously like an iPhone; and later on, we have Izabel, the ghost of a teenage girl – or at least, the torso of a teenage girl; her apparition ends at her visible intestines – using words like “whatevs” and “suck-ass” and telling people to “chill” in almost the same breath as she refers to an unknown woman as “some other broad”, which is such a random and jarring mishmash of slang, I cannot even. Throw in the fact that the obligatory Planet of Hookers (you knew there’d be one) is literally, actually called Sextillion, and I’m starting to think that not only doesn’t Vaughan know how to worldbuild the details, he isn’t even trying.

But back to the sexism – and also, unfortunately, to the racism. Because as much as I resent the unnecessary sexualisation of The Stalk – a female bountyhunter best described as an armless human torso atop a spider’s thorax, whose skill as a mercenary is apparently such that she doesn’t need to wear armour, clothes, or even a bra, instead content to gallivant around bare-breasted Because Free Boobies – and the fact that Prince Robot IV condescends to McHenry by telling her to “be a dear”, at least these offences are obvious as such. The racial problems, by contrast, are all the more insidious for being subtle. The first time Alana meets Izabel and her fellow ghosts, for instance, she calls them the Horrors – the threatening name by which they’re known because of their awful deeds (though apparently, it’s all just mental projections to scare people off). To which Izabel responds, “Is that seriously what you guys call indigenous peoples? That’s kind of racist, don’t you think?” 

Which is clearly meant to be played for laughs – a part of her quirky dead-teen persona. Only, here’s the thing: Izabel is white. Even though she’s drawn in shades of pink and red to mark her as a ghost, we know she’s white, because one of her fellow disembodied spirits is clearly depicted as having black hair and dark skin, so that when the two of them stand side by side, it’s visually obvious that  in life, Izabel was pale. So even though it’s technically true that Izabel is a native inhabitant of the planet in question, while Alana and Marko are both offworlders, what we have here is a white girl accusing a WOC of racism while comically defending her own status as an indigenous person – and whatever justification might exist for why that’s OK in the world of Saga, the audience still consists exclusively of modern-day Earthlings for whom such encounters and language are deeply, if not always obviously, political. Worse is yet to come, however: over on planet Sextillion (seriously: why does this trope keep happening?), another bounyhunter, The Will, is looking for a good time. Having first encountered some – I don’t know what to call them, as it’s not clear whether they belong to an actual species or are manufactured products of the planet in question; visually, though, they’re a pair of massive female heads on slender, fishnet-and-heel-clad legs; so let’s just call them ladies and move on – The Will finds himself bored by all the sex possibilities Sextillion has to offer, and so winds up in conversation with a pimp, whose pitch begins thusly: “No offence, but I can see what your last bitch did to you. It’s all over your face, my brother. Let me guess, was she a “strong woman”?”

To which I say: NO. A THOUSAND TIMES NO. The pimp then tells The Will that what he needs is a slave girl. Only, when they arrive at the pimp’s quarters, the girl in question? Is literally a girl. By which I mean, she is six fucking years old, and did I mention the fact that The Will is white and the slave girl is strongly implied to be Asian, not only in terms of her clothes and colouration, but because her home world – or home comet, rather – is called Phang? And then The Will tries to rescue her, but of course he can’t, but the girl doesn’t really mind, because the important thing is that he tried, and off she goes back to her owner (to whom she was sold by her uncle, of course) and SERIOUSLY? It wasn’t enough to casually mention that Marko’s people apparently keep “rape camps” without considering this information to be materially relevant to Alana’s decision to run off with him, and it wasn’t enough to have the now-dead pimp state openly that many of his whores are refugees strongly implied to be there against their will; you have to sneak some Asian child sex-slavery into a world where Asia doesn’t even exist? Capping off all this awfulness is a truly vile conversation between The Will and Mama Sun, the slave girl’s owner, who responds to the apparent contradiction of his profession and actions by asking: “So it’s morally acceptable to execute people of any age, but only to make love to a select few?”

And I just. I do not even know where to BEGIN with this bullshit. Because, look: even though this comment is clearly flagged as reprehensible in the narrative thanks to The Will’s response – “If I gotta explain the difference, you’re too far gone to follow” – this still sits way too close to the endlessly-perpetuated argument that there’s no moral difference between rape and murder, so therefore sexualising and brutalising women in video games and other cultural output is OK, for me to be in any way, shape or form comfortable with its being there unanalysed, and doubly especially when the person saying it not only goes on to explain how the slave girl – whose name we never find out – is really better off under her care, because of how she gets food and shelter and income, but walks away with the child still in her custody.

And then we’re back to the sexism again: Alana calling The Stalk a cunt, The Stalk calling Alana a bitch; The Will’s muttered complaint about “women” when he first arrives at Sextillion, followed by the leggy ladyfaces offering him “livestock to copulate with”; Alana arguing with Izabel about how best to care for her baby, which exchange involves Izabel calling her “hormonal” and criticizing her breastfeeding technique and Alana mocking Izabel for “missing her vagina”;  Marko comparing Alana to his former fiancée, Gwendolyn, by saying the latter had “boyish hips” that weren’t “womanly” like Alana’s; every bite of the sandwich filled with grit. And then there’s the issue of the robots, who are inexplicably human – even, apparently, at a biological level – except for having TV screens for heads, and who therefore seem the perfect personification of the problems with Vaughan’s script. The first time we see Prince Robot IV and his Princess, they’re having sex; later, we see the Prince on the toilet, and are told that the Princess is pregnant. How and why is never explained – like the anachronisms mentioned earlier, the worldbuilding detail just isn’t there – but when the pregnancy is announced, the Princess tellingly says that she and the Prince will be happy with anything – “even a girl”. And honestly? For all that Vaughan’s apparent plan with the robots is a sort of visual irony derived from the idea of a race of machines with all the biological and ceremonial trappings of humanity, right down to male primogeniture and a hereditary monarchy, the idea of a robot society with entrenched sexism is just… I mean, do I even need to explain this? THEY’RE ROBOTS. Even with the addition of biological components, like fertility and the need to shit, we’re talking about metal creatures who, at a base level, all possess the same physical and mental capabilities – so even if future volumes include a social explanation for robot gender bias (such as, for instance, the sexism of their original creators, or a cultural adherence to specific and highly stereotyped gender identities as compensation for being otherwise compositionally identical), the decision to include sexism within a culture where its presence makes no logical sense is still an incredibly worrying one.

But perhaps the most annoying thing of all his how unnecessary all these problems are. The vast majority are the result of throwaway lines of dialogue, and the rest – the slave girl, the sexualisation of The Stalk – could be very easily fixed at no cost to the main plot. This is what I mean when I say that white partirachy gets everywhere: for all that I don’t doubt that Vaughan’s intentions were good – the narrative might not question this stuff, but that doesn’t mean it portrays it in a positive light – the fact remains that none of it needed to be there at all, and especially not when you consider that otherwise, he’s created a world where men and women fight side by side. And as much as I’d have loved a deeper political dimension on the pro-equality side (because I pretty much always do), it didn’t need to be there, either, in order to make things work: Vaughan simply had keep real-world sexism and racism from influencing his portrayals of the characters, or else introduce a convincing reason for those issues to be there that wasn’t at odds with the rest of the story. Had he done so, then I’d be well on the way to rating Saga as one of my favourite series ever, even with the random anachronisms. Because for all these problems, Saga Volume 1 has a lot to offer: the artwork is gorgeous, the emotional component is generally compelling, there’s a real sense of scope and grandeur and original SFFnal adventure, and enough interesting elements have been put in play that I really do want to see what happens next. But if the problematic aspects aren’t resolved or addressed, then the series will only make me angrier the longer it goes on, and I’ll end up feeling cheated and exhausted – and very much in the mood for a different sort of sandwich altogether.

Trigger warning: appalling racism.

There are many kinds of anger.

There is anger at inanimate objects – sleeves getting caught on doorknobs, iPod headphones yanked from ears when the cord snagged unexpectedly. There is anger at circumstance – the ugly day full of mundane evils, the barked shin, the forgotten bill. There is anger at people – the friend who lies, the partner who cheats, the executive who cancels your favourite show. There is anger at power abused – the endless parade of politicians so corrupt that it makes you lose faith in society, the faceless voice from the bank that smugly ups your mortgage. There is anger at personal affront – the stranger who gropes you on the bus, the condescending boss who treats you like dirt.

And there is white-hot anger, so fierce you become the eye within the maelstrom of your own rage, calm as your pulse exceeds the beats of a marathon runner, calm as your fingers grasp and clench, calm as you grip your aggressor’s throat and squeeze.

This last I feel for Theodore Beale.

***

Recently, I blogged about sexism in the SFWA Bulletin. I wrote that piece as a self-declared comic rant, the tone inspired by anger at men who ultimately meant well, however offensive and outdated their efforts at showing it. I received a lot of support for having done so; but of course, there was a flipside. My anger, said some, was unseemly and unprofessional. My arguments were poorly reasoned. I was preaching to the choir. I was the gendered pejorative of choice. But the thing is, I can shrug that off. I deal out enough criticism that I expect to receive my share in return, and whatever form that pushback takes, it very rarely shocks me. By the standards of women on the internet, in fact, I’m pretty lucky. I’ve received a minimum of rape threats, I rarely get called a cunt, and if some of my detractors are uncivil, then I can usually dish it out in return. I was bullied, harassed, attacked and assaulted enough at school for being forthright, female and unfeminine that written threats just don’t chill me the way they used to. (They still chill me, of course. And I didn’t suffer nearly as much as others. Nonetheless, the comparison stands – and no, this isn’t an invitation to try harder.)

The point being, I have privilege, and that privilege protects me. I’m a middle-class, well-educated, straight white ciswoman with a functional, middle-class white family, and however much the misogyny gets to me at times, I can draw on that privilege – on that firmly entrenched sense of self-worth and the emotional, social and financial safety net which supports it – and fight back. I belong to the second most privileged group of people on the planet, and whatever abuse I still suffer regardless of that, I have the cultural status to counter it and be heard. As an individual, therefore, I’m hard to oppress. I have privilege. I have resilience. I have opinions.

And I have anger.

***

Don’t feed the trolls.

Don’t read the comments.

Don’t engage. You’ll only encourage them.

Don’t retaliate. It gives them publicity.

Just ignore them. They’ll go away.

Why bother? This argument never ends.

These comments enrage me as threats against my person don’t and can’t. These comments are apathy. They are exhaustion. They are a concession to the idea that some fights are too big to win, some problems too entrenched to fix, some evils too petty to countermand. I understand them, yes. Some days, I even feel them. But I do not believe them. However drained this interminable process of arguing for my rights and the rights of others leaves me feeling, I am yet to cede the ground. One day, perhaps, though I hope not.

But not yet.

***

Last week, author N. K. Jemisin delivered her Guest of Honour speech at Continuum in Melbourne. It’s a powerful, painful, brilliant piece about racism in SFF, and racism elsewhere; about the barbaric treatment suffered by the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, my home, at the hands of white invaders, politicians, and most of the rest of the populace for the past two hundred-odd years. It’s also a call for Reconciliation within the SFF community: capital R, much like the Reconciliation our government has so belatedly and underwhelmingly – yet so significantly – attempted to make itself. She wrote in response to not only the recent strife within SFWA, but all the endless scandals of racefail and sexism and appropriation which have preceded it within reach of our collective memory; a memory she rightly names as short.

And as a result, Theodore Beale, aka Vox Day – a man whose man affronts to humanity, equality and just about every person on Earth who isn’t a straight white American cismale are so well documented as to defy the utility of cataloguing them here, when all you need do is Google him – has responded to Jemisin with a racist screed so vile and unconscionable that the only surprise is that even he, a man with no apparent shame, felt comfortable putting his name to it.

“Let me be perfectly clear,” he says (my emphasis):

“Jemisin has it wrong; it is not that I, and others, do not view her as human, (although genetic science presently suggests that we are not equally homo sapiens sapiens), it is that we do not view her as being fully civilized for the obvious reason that she is not.

She is lying about the laws in Texas and Florida too. The laws are not there to let whites “just shoot people like me, without consequence, as long as they feel threatened by my presence”, those self defence laws have been put in place to let whites defend themselves by shooting people, like her, who are savages in attacking white people.

Jemisin’s disregard for the truth is no different than the average Chicago gangbanger’s disregard for the law…

Unlike the white males she excoriates, there is no evidence that a society of NK Jemisins is capable of building an advanced civilization, or even successfully maintaining one without significant external support. Considering that it took my English and German ancestors more than one thousand years to become fully civilised  after their first contact with an advanced civilisation, it is illogical to imagine, let alone insist, that Africans have somehow managed to do so in less than half the time with even less direct contact. These things take time.

Being an educated, but ignorant savage, with no more understanding of what it took to build a new literature by “a bunch of beardy old middle-class middle-American guys” than an illiterate Igbotu tribesman has of how to build a jet engine, Jemisin clearly does not understand that her dishonest call for “reconciliation” and even more diversity with SF/F is tantamount to a call for its decline into irrelevance…

Reconciliation is not possible between the realistic and the delusional.

I feel poisoned even typing that. Sickened. Trembling. I cannot even imagine how Jemisin feels. Nor am I attempting to speak for her. She is, without a doubt, one of the most brilliant women – one of the most brilliant people and writers, period – active in SFF today, and my voice in this matter is not a replacement for hers.

I am speaking because it would be a crime against conscience not to.

I am speaking because a world where men like Theodore Beale are left to speak unchallenged by the weariness of their opponents is not a world I want to live  in.

I am speaking because my privilege affords me a chance to be heard.

And I am speaking because of the bodily disgust, the rage and hatred and putrescence I feel for members of my own race, both now and throughout history, who speak of savages and lesser beings, of civilisation and the right to kill those outside or perceived to be incapable of it; who speak, as Beale does, as though people of colour are a genetically different, inferior species of human when compared to his Aryan ancestors.

This is my Reconciliation.

***

Theodore Beale is the bodily personification of everything that is wrong and rotten in SFF; everything that is hateful in society. He talks both of and to an accomplished, amazing, award-winning writer as though she were a child too ignorant and uncivilised to merit a response to her argument that makes no reference to her race; because, in fact, her race is the thing he really wants to rebuke. Too stupid. Too savage. Too black. Too African. His argument is repulsive, vile and violently racist on every possible level. He talks of laws that have legitimised the shooting of an escort who refused to engage in illegal prostitution with a client, laws that actively enforce one rule for whites and another for people of colour, as though the sexist and racist implications of both are not only morally justified, but intended by their creators – which, of course, they overwhelmingly are. It’s just that, more often than not, their proponents try to keep a lid on this fact, the better to fool the rest of us into thinking that racism no longer holds sway. (It does.)

If Theodore Beale isn’t cast out of the SFWA immediately, then that organisation is worth nothing.

If Black Gate continues to give Theodore Beale a platform, then that publication is worth nothing.

This isn’t just about Jemisin. It’s not even wholly about the fact that Beale has gone on record making excruciatingly racist comments; comments which are just the latest in a long and execrable history, and which he has publicly attached to the SFWA as an organisation by promoting them through its official Twitter feed.

It’s that Beale’s remarks aren’t just racist; they’re imperialist tracts straight out of the same 19th century playbook as phrenological proof of African inferiority and the White Man’s Burden, spiced up with the 20th century logic of the Ubermensch and bigotry couched as genetics. In a year when the fascist, neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party in Greece has literally been rounding up “undesireables” like sex workers, trans* individuals, immigrants and the homeless and putting them into camps, any aggression that draws its strength from the none-too-tacit endorsement of colonial racism and racial purity is not only horrifically bigoted, but actively dangerous.  This is racism pulled from the very root of what racism means, unfiltered by any pretence at equitable discourse. Theodore Beale has gone straight to the arguments originally made in support of black slavery, and he has found them good.

As members of the SFF community, there is only one acceptable response to Beale, and that is to shun him utterly; to excise him from our genre like the cancer that he is, from convention to blog to column, and to enforce that ban as thoroughly and determinedly as we are able.

Because if we don’t, our Reconciliation will mean nothing.

We will mean nothing.