Posts Tagged ‘Sexism’

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trigger warning: racism, homophobia.

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

WIN_20140507_171248

and I just – OK.

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

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

Science fiction is under the control of the thought police…

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

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

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

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

Speechless

 

Inigo Montoya

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

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

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

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

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

Thus:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walrus

So, in conclusion:

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

THANK YOU AND GOOD NIGHT.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buzzfeed Brony question

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hypothesis:

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

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

Let’s examine the evidence, shall we?

1: BMI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Clothing Sizes

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

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

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

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

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

3. Fat Health

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

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

 

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

Conclusion:

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

Because society deserves better. Women deserve better.

We deserve better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m a bit late to the party on Michelle Dean’s Our Young-Adult Dystopia, which article appeared in the New York Times in mid-February; nonetheless,  I can’t quite see my way to letting it pass without comment. Unlike the vast majority of people who end up wringing their hands in mainstream publications about how YA Novels Will Doom Us All, Dean appears to actually have read the books she’s talking about, rather than merely criticising them from afar. This has not, however, stopped her from writing one of the most pompous and irritating opening paragraphs of our times:

I sometimes wonder what Dante or Milton or any of those guys would make of the modern appetite for the young-adult epic. It wasn’t always a lucrative thing, writing grand, sweeping, fantastical stories, you know. It was a job for nose-to-the-grindstone, writing-for-the-ages types, and worldly rewards were low. Milton died in penury, blind and obscure; Dante met his maker in literal exile. Would they look with envy upon their celebrated and moneyed modern analogues — your J. K. Rowlings, your Suzanne Collinses?

Ah, yes – those were the days! How I yearn for the golden past, when fantasy was Serious Male Business to be ground out in penury, rather than Crass Female Business resulting in fame! Once again, I’m forced to play the game of Mainstream YA Article Bingo, and as you can see from the card below, it’s not looking good:

YA Article Bingo

Having already compared modern YA with stories written over a century ago and dipped into the Free Space with the requisite reference to The Hunger Games (to say nothing of coming perilously close to an elitist dismissal of popular fiction as trash), Dean then proceeds to get the bit between her teeth:

You do not have to believe the latter [Collins and Rowling] match their ancestors in skill or intelligence to see that they live in a charmed time for their craft. Writing a big, imaginative epic, and particularly one aimed at children or that vaguely defined demographic, “young adult,” will get you plenty of money and status in the grown-up population. You’ll get your big Hollywood movie, and you’ll get your New Yorker profile.

Speaking as a YA author whose money, status, big Hollywood movie and New Yorker profile have all mysteriously failed to eventuate, presumably having been lost down the back of a couch somewhere between Berkeley and Manhattan, I am, in the parlance of the modern internet, 1000% done with people who wilfully mistake the massive success of a few bestselling and debut authors for a universal phenomenon. But then, where’s the sensationalist fun in that? You can’t kickstart outrage by pointing out that, even though most YA authors are still working day jobs to make ends meet, earning low four-digit advances, doing their own publicity and attending no shindig fancier than a launch at the local library, a handful of their peers have nonetheless experienced enormous success due to various trends and fluctuations within the marketplace but, most of all, the hard work of actually writing books. All those tedious humdrum facts lack punch.

There is, nonetheless, a downside to this epic bubble. As in every other area of American life, the sweet smell of success wafting from on high proves irresistible to Johnny-and-Jane-come-latelies. Scarce will we have let down our Katniss-inspired braids this year, for example, than something called “Divergent” will come hurtling toward us. The film adaptation of the first book in this trilogy comes out in March. The economic success of these books, written by 25-year-old Veronica Roth, can’t be overstated. The finale, “Allegiant,” came out in October, and its announced first printing was two million copies — a number nearly unheard-of in the depressed coal-mining town that is publishing, these days. It rose to the top of the best-seller lists instantly, as though by divine right.

How dare new authors be inspired to write successful books in popular genres! Never mind that, owing to the long lead times in publishing, Roth’s Divergent was picked up by Harper Collins in July 2010, a month before the final Hunger Games book, Mockingjay, was even on shelves – of course Roth is a latecomer! And how dare the third book of a successful trilogy be printed in huge numbers, apparently! Down with big print runs! Publishers shouldn’t be confident in their authors! (Bonus points will be awarded to those who find it odd that Dean here refers to the publishing industry as a “depressed coal-mining town” when her entire piece is otherwise objecting to the lucrative new vein of stories it’s currently tapping, to considerable profit. Apparently, it’s only noble and right for publishers to make money if they’re not trying to make money.)

I am not the kind of person who sniffs at “low culture.” Still, something like “Divergent” has been so hastily assembled, and then so cynically marketed, that I cannot help being offended on the part of the reading public.

Dean doesn’t sniff at low culture. She just calls it low culture – rather than, for instance, popular culture, which is both more accurate and less snobbish – and thinks its success is an indictment on the industry. I also find it noteworthy that, by implied definition, the “reading public” here described doesn’t include any Roth fans. (Because, like so much else in discussions of popular culture, “reading public” is code for “erudite people who read a better class of book”. You don’t have to like Divergent to find this construction suspect.)

I know it sells, and God knows that publishing needs the money. But the pushing of this stuff is starting to make me feel as if we’re all suckers. Cruelly, the gilded age of young-adult literature threatens to suck the life out of the whole thing.

But for whom, though? Book blogs, digital imprints and teenage readerships are all booming, as are indie publishers, YA fandoms and online communities devoted to the passionate sharing, discussion and creation of YA. Nobody is forcing Dean to read Veronica Roth, or anyone else, for that matter. It’s not being “pushed” on her, like hard drugs or the execrable opinions of Jeremy Paxman. Dean is free to dislike Roth, or not, as the mood takes her. What I’m struggling with is the suggestion that Roth is somehow representative of the moral/commercial bankruptcy of modern YA, just because she’s successful beyond what Dean feels her writing is worth.

Few are bothered by the costs of this excitement, though successful writers in the young-adult market do seem to have noticed the way the industry depends on them. John Green, whose (excellent, though non-epic) young-adult novel “The Fault in Our Stars ” will get its own film adaptation in May, explained his predicament to The Chicago Tribune last fall: “It’s a massive amount of pressure, and not just from fans, but from people whose jobs are on the line because of what you write.” And that pressure’s twin seems to be a blunt carelessness in selecting and editing new work for publication. Most of these Next Big Things appear to have escaped any serious redlining. It seems their “editors” simply pray to the gods of chance that the author lands on a critical featherbed, rather than being thrown to the wolves.

It took me several attempts to parse this argument, because it’s so wholly ludicrous. For the first time ever, YA SFF novels – and particularly books written by and for young women – are considered a big, commercial Hollywood business. But rather than celebrating the unprecedented prominence of female-centric stories and daring to dream of fame, Dean says, YA authors and editors should be endeavouring to safeguard the jobs of film industry professionals by being harder on themselves. If only YA editors would really dig their heels in at the outset, bad movies wouldn’t happen, because Hollywood wouldn’t be tempted to make doomed-to-fail adaptations of “low culture” crap! Young authors need to stop writing commercially successful books, because if someone buys the film rights, another person’s job could be threatened years down the line when forces beyond the writer’s control lead to poor box office receipts! (That sound you hear is me banging my head on the keyboard.)

Setting aside the extremely pertinent fact that authors on film sets tend not to have an enormous amount of directorial discretion, even though it’s their books being adapted, such that the success or failure of what’s produced can’t reasonably said to rest solely on their shoulders – no novel makes it onto the screen verbatim. As various fandoms can attest, Hollywood has never shrunk from making merry with established canon, whether that means whitewashing a previously diverse cast, adding new characters to familiar stories, or generally just chopping and changing various details as par for the course, and that’s before you get to the question of successful promotion. Big studios might be snapping up YA movie rights out of a cynical desire to find the next Hunger Games, but if the end products are failures, authors are hardly the ones to blame. The fact is that, regardless of the editorial energies expended prior to a book’s release, it’s the finished product that attracts (or doesn’t) the eager eye of studios, whose adaptations are then perfectly placed to redress whatever failings the text might have. So while I can perfectly understand the authorial worry that one’s book adaptation will flop, thereby bringing untold misery to those kind souls who’ve expended so much energy bringing it to life, the idea that they could’ve prevented it all by begging their editor way back when to be crueller with the red pen is a solipsistic fear with no bearing on reality.

(And speaking of facts – vaunting John Green as excellent  while criticising female YA authors? Ladies and gentlemen, check your bingo cards!)

…Roth was 21 when she sold the book and all this started. Had I been exposed to such widespread public scrutiny at that age, I doubt I’d have survived it.

Of course, Roth was selected for this fate in part because she was young. Youth is key to the marketing message.

Does Dean have any evidence for this assertion – that Roth is successful, not just because an agent, a major publishing house and a film studio all decided to back her story, but because of her youth? Evidently not, but that doesn’t matter: for Dean, it seems, it’s just the logical explanation for why a book she thinks is poorly written was given such advantages.

I could not help noticing how Roth’s case echoed in another over the summer: Samantha Shannon’s. She was a 21-year-old Oxford student when her first novel, “The Bone Season,” was declared the Next Big Thing last August…  Hopes were clearly high for its instant blockbuster success, and Shannon had all the ritual blessings the young-adult epic market can offer: a six-figure deal for the first three planned books of seven and a prepublication purchase of film rights. The “Today” show declared it the inaugural pick of its Book Club.

But readers did not respond, not this time. According to Nielsen Bookscan, American sales were in the low-to-mid-five figures in hardcover.

This is, once you break it down, an incredibly misleading statement. Firstly, Dean is citing only the American hardback sales of a book that’s been published both internationally and in ebook format – at a time when ebook sales are surpassing hardcover sales in the US market - as evidence that The Bone Season has failed to live up to its promise. Secondly, those “low-to-mid five figures” in the US hardcover market alone were still strong enough to see the book debut at no. 7 in the New York Times bestseller list, which is hardly something to be sneezed at. With the paperback version not forthcoming until April, and the film version as yet unmade, it seems a little preemptive to judge as a failure a book that’s been sold in 21 countries on the basis of its early sales in just one of them.

I often wonder if the people in charge of these decisions noticed that Rowling was 30 when she sold “Harry Potter,” or that Collins was 46 when “The Hunger Games” appeared. If they did, then they must have also noticed how much the present state of affairs resembles the Hollywood starlet system. But I know why movie producers prefer the young ones. That position is even less defensible among book editors.

Though I can think of a number of other modern YA authors published at young ages beyond Roth and Shannon – myself among them, for the sake of full disclosure; I can scarcely call myself famous, but my first book was nonetheless bought by a publisher in 2009, when I was 23, and came out the following year – the idea that publishers are deliberately mimicking the “starlet system” is absurd. While some journalists certainly get a kick out of emphasising the improbable youth of authors like Alexandra Adornetto and Steph Bowe (both published in their teens), the plain fact is that if some YA novels are being written by young adults, it’s not because of some creepy decision to market books in tandem with the nubile flesh of their authors; it’s just a natural consequence of the fact that young adults like writing for themselves, and are, on occasion, good at it.

Judging by her heavily gendered comparison with starlets, however, Dean appears specifically to take issue with the success young female authors, presumably because she, like almost everyone else, has been taught by our sexist culture that successful young women must necessarily be trading on their youth and beauty, rather than being in possession of any actual talent. Whether she’s an author, a fan, a singer, an actress or anything else in the public spotlight, if a young woman does something, you can be guaranteed that, sooner or later, someone’s going to say she’s not a “real” whatever-it-is, because clearly, young women can’t be. Even so, if young women were the only authors having their books adapted to the big screen and given the five-star treatment, then perhaps Dean would have a point: if nothing else, it would certainly be worth discussing. But as she herself acknowledges, the authors of many other successful franchises – like Suzanne Collins, J. K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer, to name the requisite Big Three – are all in their thirties and forties; and while YA certainly boasts a number of prominent female creators, there are plenty of men being given film deals, too. Besides John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, which Dean is already demonstrably aware of, there’s Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, now on its second instalment, James Dashner’s The Maze Runner, Pittacus Lore’s I Am Number Four, Christopher Paolini’s Eragon, Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass and, of course, the three Narnia movies. (Naturally, though, when male-authored films meet with poor or only middling success, as several of these have, no one ever seems to suggest the source material was at fault, or takes it as an indictment on the skills of male authors generally – they were just bad adaptations). Hollywood doesn’t care who writes the books – it just knows that YA and SFF are popular, and wants to get in while the getting’s good, a slapdash attitude that often leads to subpar films regardless of where the inspiration comes from.

But by all means, let’s continue to focus on how undeserving young women are of fame.

Children’s literature toys with our chronological expectations because the best of it has always been written, actually, by the comparatively elderly. Lewis himself was 51 when the “Narnia” books came out; Lois Lowry was 56 when “The Giver” was published; Madeleine L’Engle wrote “A Wrinkle in Time” in her 40s, and L. Frank Baum his “Oz” books in the same decade of his life.

Age is what the greats have in common. The long years between adolescence and middle age seem to be necessary soil for this craft. It requires roots, and no quick shoots will do. They need years to grow and tangle and set before the brilliant, unforgettable book appears… 

Books like Frankenstein, perhaps – one of the undisputed greats of modern literature, and the arguable genesis of modern science fiction? Which was, of course, conceived of and written by Mary Shelley at the ripe old age of 19. And how about  Jane Austen, who started writing Pride and Prejudice when she was 21? Edgar Allen Poe began publishing short stories in his early twenties, receiving a prize for MS. Found in a Bottle at 24 – the same age as Alfred, Lord Tennyson when The Lady of Shallot first appeared in print. Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Prize-winning writer, also produced his first major play at the age of 24, in 1958; award-winning author Helen Oyeyemi  famously wrote her first novel, The Icarus Girl, while still at school; and just three years ago, Yugoslavian writer Tea Obreht won the Orange Prize with her debut, The Tiger’s Wife, at age 25. Which isn’t to say that no writer ever matures or improves with age – quite the opposite. It’s just that a blanket belief in incompetent, callow youth is equally as inaccurate as a sweeping assertion that age necessarily leads to great books. For every new YA author aged in their teens or twenties, I can think of others in their thirties, forties, fifties or sixties whose works aren’t automatic masterpieces. If I were going to try and make any sort of general statement about the relationship between one’s age and one’s ability to write, in fact, all I’d say is this: that first novels, regardless of the age at which we write them, are seldom our very best works, but that their quality is more likely dependent, not on how old we are, but on how long we’ve been writing when they’re published.

English literature is full of young male writers lionised, both then and subsequently, for their incredible gifts, not least because most of them were busy dying of sybaritic illnesses before they got their first grey hair: John Keats was dead by 25, Percy Bysshe Shelley by 29 and Lord Byron by 36, and that’s just for starters. But once again, it’s the young women of today whose outpourings are held to be inferior, not on the basis of individual talent or literary preference, but because young people just can’t write.

I suppose I’m admitting that those people who call young-adult readers “childish” are onto something. It’s just not the pure desire for regression they pompously diagnose. It’s a desire for stories substantial enough to withstand the ages, that are like smooth river rocks you can turn over and over again.

 I see: having first stepped in to defend the honour of the “reading public” from the insult of commercially successful YA novels, Dean has proceeded to fix the blame on YA authors for being too young and YA readers for being too “childish”, and on everyone else in the equation for giving young women power, whether as creators or as members of a demographic audience. On the basis of the evidence, then, it’s harder to say if Dean really resents Roth and Shannon because they’re successful in a genre she dislikes, or if she dislikes the genre because it’s made them successful without recourse to her opinion of their talent. Clearly, though, it’s not just the problem of commercialism in literature that’s upsetting her – or if it is, then I’d humbly suggest that she’s drawing a bead on the wrong target. If the soul of publishing is truly being imperilled by the relentless drive for monetary gain, then the likes of Jeffrey Archer, Clive Cussler, Dan Brown, Matthew Reilly and David Baldacci are far more worthy targets, each of whom has produced far more pulp bestsellers than Roth and Shannon combined. But then, of course, these are adult men, and even though we might collectively mock novels like The Da Vinci Code or wonder who on Earth keeps giving Nicholas Sparks money, we never question the rights of adult male readers to enjoy whatever the hell they like, no matter how trashy and poorly written we find it.

But women, whatever their age, are held to different standards. We’re presupposed to be the moral and aesthetic gatekeepers of every genre we’re discouraged from actually enjoying, not just because girls aren’t meant to like that sort of thing (and if we don’t, we’re humourless, fun-hating harridans – natch), but because, if we do, it’s unseemly and inappropriate and we’re doing it wrong, and why does there have to be romance and boys and ugh, trashy films with magic and explosions are just so much better when they fail the Bechdel test and are made for teenage boys and young women need to stop participating in popular culture!

And this, ultimately, is why I end up gritting my teeth whenever I see yet another mainstream article lamenting this female-heavy trend in YA – and that’s really what Dean is doing here, for all that she’s trying to pretend otherwise. It’s not that YA and its authors should somehow exist beyond criticism (they shouldn’t) or that there’s no problematic trends, romantic or otherwise, being perpetuated by the current crop of YA novels (there are), or even that it’s inherently wrong to analyse the logic underpinning commercial YA (it’s not). It’s because, overwhelmingly, this sort of analysis isn’t what happens. Instead, we get sour grapes and grudge matches: journalists outraged at the success of particular stories confusing their failings with the failings of an the entire genre; pundits decrying the ubiquity of books they’ve never read in genres they don’t understand for audiences they didn’t know existed, and calling it the end of civilisation; moral crusaders up in arms that girls are reading about sex, or writing about it, or doing anything other than waiting chastely for the good Christian wedding night where they’ll lie back and think of England, because even stories dealing with the aftermath of rape are somehow pornographic; and on, and on, and on. Whether we’re conscious of our biases or not, we’re culturally predisposed to be extra critical of everything women, and particularly young women, do (to say nothing of the women themselves) – and now that YA novels have become such a breakaway phenomenon, with plenty of film adaptations still in the works, otherwise sane adults are falling all over themselves to declare the whole business a type of commercial heresy.

While the YA market should be criticised for many things, like its habit of whitewashing book covers, its faith in the works of young female writers isn’t one of them. Let young people write books for each other – the result might not always be literature for the ages, but it’s still produced some damn good stories, and with so many new authors entering the field with decades still ahead of them in which to develop their talents, I for one am excited to see where not just YA, but the future of writing is headed.

Yesterday, Loncon 3 was flung unpleasantly into the spotlight when the organisers announced on Twitter that none other than Jonathan Ross would be hosting the Hugo awards, prompting an instantaneous and largely negative response from the SFF community. Big names like Charles Stross and Seanan McGuire, among others, expressed their serious concerns, as did other congoers, and while there were those who also tweeted in support of Wossy – who was, at one point, responding to individual critics – it wasn’t long before he stepped down. Meanwhile, former con organiser Farah Mendlesohn resigned over Ross being given the gig in the first place, citing days of struggle on her behalf with fellow chairs who reportedly refused to discuss Ross’s history of inappropriate behaviour, particularly towards women.

I have some thoughts about this.

Firstly: The whole fiasco reflects extraordinarily poorly on Loncon 3′s organisers. Thanks largely Farah Mendlesohn, they cannot possibly claim prior ignorance of how some fans would react to the decision; yet as Ross himself was seemingly both surprised by the response and uninformed of the wider context prompting it – as evidenced not only by his resignation, but the tone of his preceding and subsequent interactions with concerned congoers – this suggests they did a very bad job of preparing him for the possibility. And when you ask a powerful, famous public figure to host a comparatively little-known event, for free, on the basis of his love for your community’s history and output, but neglect to brief him on how and why his presence might provoke controversy within that community now – and especially when the man in question is known for creating controversies, making this an even more urgent topic than usual – then you are doing your job badly.

By his own admission, Ross agreed to host the Hugos because he loves SFF, and because Neil Gaiman apparently asked him to: most likely, he thought it would be a fun, easy, trouble-free gig promoting a genre he cares about, not an incipient Twitter shitstorm. And that he does care about SFF, I don’t doubt; I’ve seen him speak on the topic, and the man knows his stuff. But just as loving Batman isn’t dependent on having an encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of DC, neither is being a fan off SFF dependent on keeping up with its controversies and ever-shifting political landscapes as expressed through the blogosphere. Jonathan Ross isn’t any less a true fan, whatever the hell that means, for not having instinctively known that the path to the Hugo Awards would take him through the Nefarious Minefield of Fuckeries Past. But it was sure as hell the job of the Loncon 3 organisers to prepare him for it anyway, and if they’d done it properly – if they hadn’t been so starstruck by the idea of an Actual Mainstream Famous Person hosting their awards ceremony that they neglected to view his involvement through anything other than rose-coloured lenses – then either Wossy would have been prepared for the criticism he was always going to receive (and might therefore have been in a position to offer reassurance to fans, rather than snapping at them; assuming he’d cared enough to do so), or he would’ve quietly declined the position behind the scenes, thereby avoiding the embarrassment of quitting after just eight hours.

Secondly: After everything the community has been through in recent years – after all the fails over sexual harassment, both on stage and within cons, and the lack (or failure) of cogent policies for dealing with it; all the problems of panel parity, diversity and representation; the never-ending parade of scandal and sexism within the SFWA; and, just as importantly, all of Loncon 3′s early hard work to assure congoers that they were aware of these issues – it should have been blindingly obvious, no matter how sincere his love of SFF or how well-established his credentials as an emcee, that asking a man with a history of behaving badly towards women in professional contexts – whether by dry-humping, sexually propositioning or objectifying them through transphobic dismissals – was going to go down like a lead balloon. This isn’t about whether Jonathan Ross, despite some of his past actions, is really a great guy who would’ve done a fabulous job as Hugos host, had the fandom not collectively jumped down his throat (as some are now asserting it is): humans being the complex, contradictory creatures that we are, it is simultaneously possible to be a predominantly good person who has nonetheless done – and will doubtless continue to do – some extremely shitty and unacceptable things. No: this is about the fact that, regardless of where you stand on the question of Jonathan Ross as a person, in his capacity as a professional comic and interviewer, he has behaved in some very unprofessional and offensive ways towards particular groups of people, large numbers of whom – notably women – are likely either be nominated for Hugo awards or attending the ceremony in other capacities, and as such, the SFF community was right to ask whether his past behaviour might repeat itself, or if it should have disqualified him for the job in the first place, given the con’s harassment policy. And as the Loncon committee knew these questions were going to arise, the onus was on them to ensure that Ross was both willing and able to answer them.

Thirdly: Yes, there’s a fame-coup quotient to a big name like Ross that’s always going to draw some positive endorsement – as, indeed, it did – and this is certainly something the SFF community should be  thinking about. But just getting a big name on the cards is not enough to automatically outweigh all the negative associations such a name might also invoke, and especially not if you fail to even acknowledge their existence. I say again: announcing that someone as famous as Ross has agreed to host the Hugos is only a coup if he stays the host, does a good enough job of responding to criticism and reassuring detractors that his presence doesn’t provoke a boycott, and then gets the job done without insulting any of the nominees – and even then, there’s still going to be fallout for any number of valid reasons. But if you, the organisers, refuse to deal with these issues beforehand, then don’t be surprised when it all blows up in your face. You did a disservice to Jonathan Ross by failing to brief him on the potential for controversy, but a far worse disservice to fans and attendees by prioritising the presence of a single famous guy over and above your promises for change.

So: I’ll be interested to see who ends up being the new Hugos host. And I’m still looking forward to Loncon 3. But this entire debacle was 100% avoidable, if only the organisers had actually bothered to listen to Farah Mendlesohn, or – let’s go crazy! – think about it for two damn minutes consecutively. <sighs>

ETA, 3.3.14: On the advice of Farah Mendlesohn and for the sake of accuracy, I’ve changed ‘weeks of struggle’ in the first paragraph to  ‘days’.

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

Except that, no: it’s not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. im gonna rape you

2. you rant and whine like a true cunt

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

4. God, what a feminist bitch!

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

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

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

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

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

10. still an ugly slag, get some surgery bitch

Laughing yet?

I’m not.

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

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

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

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

Dear Mr Delingpole,

I’ve just come across your nauseatingly clueless piece, Why it’s not sexist to say that boys should never play with dolls, and was so impressed by your complete and utter failure to understand the issues you’re discussing, not to say your sexism, that I felt the need to respond to it in full. Not so much because I think you’ll listen to a word I have to say, but because it’s necessary; and because, quite frankly, I think my head might explode if I don’t. So, without further ado: here is why you are wrong. (All bolding for emphasis is mine.)

Not so long ago the “progressive” headmistress of a very smart all-girls’ boarding school invited me to dinner with some of her brightest sixth formers.

One by one the girls were asked to tell me of their impressive future plans: “Engineering, Cambridge; physics, Oxford; maths, Imperial; an astronaut; a mining engineer; a brain surgeon…”

“And which of you just wants to settle down and bring up a family?” I interrupted, partly to annoy the zappy, go-ahead, right-on headmistress but partly out of genuine curiosity. 

The girl I most admired was the single one to raise her hand. It takes real courage these days for a girl to fight against the political correctness of our time and follow her true nature.

So, Mr Delingpole: let’s be clear. You, an adult man, were invited to an all girl’s school to have dinner with students selected especially for their academic potential – presumably so that you could encourage them in their fields of choice. You, however, appear to have been cynical of this endeavour from the outset; at the very least, you evince little respect for the woman who invited you, calling her a progressive-as-insult and pettily interrupting her in front of her students for your own amusement.

You then asked the girls, who were there to hear you support their academic ambitions, how many of them wanted to settle down and raise a family. More than that: you interrupted the listing of their goals - as though the information you’d been specifically invited to hear was both boring and irrelevant – and asked them instead the most sexist, inappropriate question you could possibly think of; the same question which, over and over and over again, has been used to derail the passion and dedication of professional women: when are you going to give up on all this career nonsense and settle down with a man?

The problem isn’t just that you asked the girls about their plans to have families, although doing so was both invasive and deeply inappropriate. The problem is that you not only situated the question of their settling down as being more important than the career ambitions they wanted to tell you about, but phrased it as though the two options – career and family – were mutually exclusive. You didn’t ask them if they also wanted families; you asked them if they wanted to “bring up” a family: to be, primarily, mothers and caregivers. Which is what you seem to think most, if not all women, naturally aspire to be, in the absence of meddling, “zappy” headmistresses. You describe the one girl who said yes as having the courage to “follow her true nature” – as though every girl at the table secretly wanted to be a mother herself, and was just too shy or too brainwashed to dare admit it.

I am a mother myself, Mr Delingpole – currently a full-time one, in fact. I have every respect for motherhood, and no delusions whatsoever about how valuable, underpraised and challenging it is to raise a child. But what you did was despicable. In 2014, you told a group of ambitious, clever teenage girls that the most important thing they could do was settle down, reserving your admiration, not for the girls who bucked your narrow expectations of what women should be, but the one who conformed. Never mind your assumption that all these girls were straight, which is a different problem altogether – because I have no doubt that, when you asked if they wanted to bring up a family, you meant a traditional, heterosexual pairing, preferably one that was legalised by marriage. You diminished them by denying their potential, Mr Delingpole – and now, in print, you’re boasting about it.

Does this make me sound like a complete sexist pig?

It does, because you are. I’m sorry to break it to you, but the ability to ask a rhetorical question about whether or not you’re a sexist pig is not some magical proof against actually being a sexist pig.

Well, possibly. But that is because I happen to be one of those reactionary dinosaur fathers who would like his beloved daughter to end up in a career which suits her talents and interests.

If she wants to be a welder or lorry driver or a rocket scientist all well and good. 

But the last thing she needs is some trendy teacher steering her towards a traditionally male profession to prove some dubious political point.

Do not wave your daughter at me like she’s a point-scoring mannequin, Mr Delingpole. Plenty of sexists have daughters. Your claim to want the best for her doesn’t change the fact that you happily sat in a room full of other people’s daughters, assumed that their collective interest in “traditionally male” professions was the unnatural consequence of some teacher’s political agenda rather than the natural consequence of having their native interests and talents encouraged by someone who didn’t think their gender was a handicap, and then tut-tutted at their reticence to give the “correct” answer to a question so invasive and personal you’d be out of bounds asking it of an adult colleague or family member, let alone a strange teenager.

If your first thought on hearing a schoolgirl profess an interest in brain surgery or mathematics is to assume, on the basis of nothing more than her gender and her teacher’s enthusiasm for her intelligence, that she must have been pressured into it, then yes: you are a sexist.

This is where I think Tory MP Liz Truss was a bit silly the other day when she told parliament’s The House magazine that chemistry sets should be aimed as much at girls as at boys.

Nice theory but what would be the purpose? A toy business’s job is to make profit not engage in social engineering

And if as consumer research has shown, it appears that boys are the prime market for test tubes, chemicals and smelly potions, why waste time and effort trying to drag girls away from their hair and make-up sets?

Let me ask you a serious question, Mr Delingpole: do young girls gravitate towards pink things because of some innate, female preference for the colour, or do they like pink because everything in our culture tells them that pink is feminine? Let me give you a hint: historically, pink was considered a masculine colour more suitable for boys than girls, while blue was considered feminine. In point of fact, pink didn’t signify feminine until as recently as the 1940s - but now, it’s so ubiquitously considered the colour for girls that we seldom think about why.

I mention this because you seem to be operating under two misguided assumptions: firstly, that social engineering is something toy companies aren’t already doing;  and secondly, that social engineering is inimical to profit. Both these assertions are false. There’s no innate reason why boys should like chemistry sets more than girls – unless you think there’s really some truth in the tired, scientifically unsupported, deeply misogynistic claim that women are inherently worse at, and consequently less interested in, the hard sciences (more of which later). But as to the question of why toy companies sell some products for boys and others for girls – consider what would happen if they didn’t. If all toys were simply accepted as being for everyone, regardless of  gender, then why would parents need to buy two otherwise identical items – one pink, one blue – to spare their son the social indignity of playing with a girl’s toy? If pink and blue weren’t gendered colours, then why would parents need to rush out and buy a whole new set of otherwise identical baby clothes for an expected girl because their first child was a boy, and boy colours would be inappropriate?

By not only making some toys explicitly for girls and others for boys, but by socially enforcing the narrative that such divisions are natural and necessary through their advertising campaigns, toy companies increase their profits by effectively forcing adults to buy extra or duplicate products for children of different genders. If it’s socially unacceptable for brothers and sisters to play with the same things, then even when it might be more cost-effective for parents to buy one toy and let their mixed-gender offspring share it, they end up buying two. This phenomenon is particularly evident at the cheaper end of the spectrum – that is, at toys and clothes marketed to poorer families. Whereas richer parents can  afford the boutique prices being charged by companies quick to cash in on the revelation that there’s a viable market for gender-neutral options (which is just one example of how removing the boy/girl fixation can be profitable for toymakers), poorer families cannot, which makes them all – adults and children alike – more dependant on heavily gendered products.

I say again: toy companies are already engaged in social engineering for profit. The only difference with what’s being proposed by people like me, who dislike the compulsive gendering of children’s products, is that we’re trying to fix a system that’s both toxic and very deeply broken, to the point of actively contributing to the negative treatment of girls and women elsewhere in our culture. I shouldn’t have to say this, but even though companies exist to make money, their profits cannot and should not be prioritised over every other human or social concern. Just as we’re right to be outraged about sweatshop labour, the use of poisonous chemicals, factory pollutants and the other many and devastating outrages that routinely occur when companies are allowed to privilege profits over everything else, we are also right to hold companies socially accountable for the injustices their products and advertising help perpetuate.

For instance: the fashion industry uses heavily airbrushed images of frequently underage, underweight models to sell clothes to young girls, portraying this highly specialised body type as both beautiful and ideal. The corresponding rise in anorexia, bulemia, poor self esteem, body dysmorphia and depression among the target demographic of these campaigns is not, therefore, unrelated to fashion marketing – and especially not when we consider that the same industry has been known to airbrush sick models into looking healthy, recruit new models outside eating disorder clinics, produce clothes dummies that are the same size as anorexic girls, and sell girls sexualised “Anna Rexia” Halloween costumes. This being so, we’re not wrong to say that the fashion industry’s profits aren’t more important than the damage their current advertising and business plans are doing, and to try and take action accordingly. By the same token, it doesn’t matter if boys are perceived to be the “prime market” for science-based toys: women in STEM fields are battling sexism, struggling for recognition both currently and historically, and the discrimination against them starts early (as evidenced, among other things, by your own poor treatment of teenage girls aspiring to STEM work). This is a real problem, and one not helped when toy and clothing companies habitually tell girls that science isn’t something they either can or should aspire to. That’s why it’s not a “waste [of] time and effort” to “drag girls away from their hair and make-up sets” – because we’re not “dragging” them, forbidding them one and insisting they take the other. We’re simply trying to give them a choice; one that you, Mr Delingpole, seem to think they neither deserve nor merit.

Because it is “sexist” I suppose. That at least is how the various feminist lobby groups would see it.

Yes. Yes, it is.

One is called Pink Stinks which campaigns against “gender stereotyping” in the toy industry. 

Another – Let Toys Be Toys – successfully persuaded Marks & Spencer earlier this year into announcing that it would no longer sell gender-specific toys. Liz Truss hailed this campaign as “fantastic”.

But is it really “fantastic” to deny boys and girls the kind of toys they most want just to demonstrate how enlightened and post-sexist you are? 

What you’re failing to grasp here, Mr Delingpole, is that nobody wants to deny little girls their princesses, any more than we want to deny little boys their chemistry sets. What we want is to give children the option of choosing what suits them without being told it’s only meant for children of a different gender: to say that fairies and knights and Lego and trucks and dolls can be for ANYONE. You, however, quite categorically are denying children”the kind of toys they most want” – by refusing to allow the possibility of girls who like dinosaurs, as I did growing up, or boys who like Strawberry Shortcake, as some of my male friends did. By concerning yourself with only a majority of children whose interests are defined as constituting such by toy companies with a vested financial interest in not changing anything, you are making it harder, if not impossible, for all children to enjoy the toys they want to play with. For God’s sake, get it into your head: the only people “forcing” children to do anything are the ones who come along yelling about how it’s wrong for boys to have dolls while simultaneously kicking the Lego away from their daughters’ outstretched fingers.

If girl toddlers want to spend their time playing with dollies – and they do – and if small boys want to spend their time constructing things out of Lego where exactly is the social benefit in frustrating their natural urges?

Before I had children of my own I was much more open-minded on this score. I was always perfectly prepared to believe – as the “experts” tell us – that behaviour is a social construct and that boys and girls act the way they do because of the roles that we parents force upon them through unconscious gender stereotyping.

Then I saw for myself at first hand what boys and girls are really like and the scales fell from my eyes. 

From as soon as she was able to walk my daughter seemed to like nothing better than pushing a baby dolly round in a pushchair. 

My son at the same age was only interested in sitting around on his fat bottom, building things with bricks and smashing them up.

Almost any parent who has had both boys and girls will tell you this.

No matter how hard you try to bring your kids up in a gender-neutral way – even if you refuse point blank to dress them in stereotypical blue or pink romper suits – those XX and XY chromosomes will out in the end. 

Are you aware, Mr Delingpole, that there’s a fundamental difference between natural behaviour and socially conditioned behaviour? And are you also aware that social conditioning can kick in from an extraordinarily young age? While some children doubtless do have innate personal preferences for dolls or blocks – preferences which sometimes align with their biological sex, and sometimes don’t – that’s not the full story. From the time they’re born, we dress girls in pink and boys in blue; we treat them differently even before they’re big enough for such differences to matter, our own biases so culturally entrenched that we don’t always realise we’re doing it. A recent study found that parents are more likely to explain science concepts to their sons than their daughters, for instance, while another found that mothers were far more likely to underestimate their baby daughters’ crawling skills while overestimating their sons’ abilities at the same tasks. Many adults actively police gender-conformity in children, and once they’re teenagers, despite the existence of “zappy”, “progressive” authority figures like the headmistress you openly mocked, many teachers and school speakers alike line up to continue the process, with a particular emphasis on shaming girls.  Even little children have a gender wage gap, with girls performing more household chores than boys for less pocket money, while this heartbreaking analysis of what parents Google about their children shows a preoccupation with female beauty and male intelligence. No matter our intentions, all parents suffer from the implicit biases we’ve absorbed and internalised as normative from the culture in which we live – so when we see our children conforming to gender stereotypes despite our efforts, however slim, we often assume it must be the result of some inherent, internal difference, after all.

In her excellently researched book, Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine refers to this position as ‘biology as fallback’ – one adopted by parents who, for whatever reason, didn’t expect to see their children exhibit stereotypical behaviours, and who subsequently assumed that gender stereotypes must really be innate. “Believing that they practiced gender-neutral parenting,” she writes, “biology was the only remaining explanation.” But as she goes on to explain – at length, her conclusions backed up by multiple studies – this simply isn’t the case. Rather, there’s only so much individual parents can do to successfully implement gender neutral parenting when, in every other aspect of their lives, children are exposed to a wider culture that overwhelmingly tells them the opposite.  It’s one thing, for instance, to try and tell your daughter she’s free to enjoy superheroes and princesses in equal measure if, every time she sets foot on the playground, she’s mocked for playing with action figures and praised, whether by her peers or her teachers, for dressing prettily.

All of which is a way of saying, Mr Delingpole, that no – the behaviours you’re observing aren’t the undeniable result of some absolute chromosonal impulse that tells girls to cuddle and boys to smash. They’re not even universal behaviours; the fact that your children confirm to stereotype doesn’t automatically mean that every child, everywhere, does, regardless of whether their parents are fans of gender-neutral parenting or view it with total antipathy.

Give a girl a doll and she will cuddle it and nurture it. Give a boy a doll and he will either torture and dismember it or use it as a hand grenade.

I find it extremely disturbing that you class  torture and dismemberment as inherently male characteristics, strong enough to be evident even in childhood – and more, that you seem to think boys are incapable of cuddling and nurturing. What you’re describing here isn’t a synonym for boisterousness or rough play, but something far more disturbing. Have you honestly never met a little boy with a favourite stuffed animal, one he loves and cuddles and cannot bear to be without? Because I have, many times. My own son, now nearly one, is among them: just as I did throughout my entire childhood, he has developed a particular affection for one of his toys, a plush owl. This owl goes everywhere with him, subject to constant hugging, chewing and fierce, babyish love. If the owl isn’t within reach, he won’t go to sleep; the one time we needed to wash it around bedtime to get rid of a moldy smell, he screamed and cried for the whole two and a half hours it took for the dryer cycle to finish, then fell asleep the instant we placed it into his hands. He’s too small for kisses yet, but he hugs us back when we hug him, and if you lean your head close to his, he copies and gently bumps foreheads, giggling and smiling. As he grows older, I have no doubt that he’ll play games where his toys are exploded or killed or imperilled – I did the same growing up, enacting out endless games where Starscream of the Decepticons shot rockets at my collection of My Little Ponies, or orchestrating playground games where Catwoman and Batman were fighting bad guys. But that’s a far cry from the sort of thing you’re describing.

Little boys are not universally sociopaths in training: nurturing and love are not exclusively feminine traits. But that’s what they can sometimes become, if, as so many people do, you assume that boys are naturally monstrous, and consequently neglect to teach them the empathy, kindness and respect for others you’ve already decided they’re incapable of learning. And so male brutality becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: if boys will be boys, then why bother to teach them otherwise? Easier far to excuse their aggression with a single pat phrase, and blindly hope they don’t grow up to become rapists or abusers.

Is this really such a bad thing? Well, you could argue that if more were done to check boys’ destructive instincts we might have less war and if more were done to discourage girls’ child-rearing tendencies we might have more women in the workplace and a narrower gender pay gap.

Or you might find as I do something rather sinister and Brave-New-World-ish in this attempt at social engineering.

What if there is a sound biological reason for the way men and women are programmed to think and behave in different ways? What indeed if the future of our species depends on it?

To a degree I think it does.

If little girls didn’t have those dollyhugging instincts we would all be in a pickle because who in the future would do the mothering and who would work in all those vital caring professions from midwifery to primary school teaching and nursing?

And if little boys weren’t hardwired into being obsessive, aggressive show-offs and risk-takers, who would spend hours in the lab before making great scientific breakthroughs or drilling for oil or defending the nation?

Are you familiar with the concept of a false binary, Mr Delingpole? I somehow think not, because if you were, you’d realise you’d just answered your own question. If some boys grow up to be nurturing, then they’ll be working in those “vital caring professions” and staying at home with the children, while the little girls with the chemistry sets and athletic skills will be, as you have it, “making great scientific breakthroughs” and “defending the nation”. All that will happen is that men and women will appear in greater numbers in the sorts of professions you seem to think they’re inherently unsuited for, and it’ll all balance out. Society won’t collapse – it’ll just look different as a result of being more equitable. As always, we’re not talking about every girl completely abandoning traditionally feminine occupations or every boy settling masculine traditions aside in favour of basket-weaving – we’re talking about gender not being a determining factor in what professions they get to choose. And while we’re on the subject: what makes you think that the gender schism evident in many Western professions is so absolute, so fundamental to human nature and gender, that it applies everywhere in the world, and throughout history? That would, after all, be the logical, sane conclusion, if your claims to biological determinism were really accurate.

In fact, the opposite is true. Women have a long and significant history of making scientific breakthroughs – but thanks to the prevailing sexism of their times, men often took all the credit, leaving us with the inaccurate, distorted perception that women never really did anything important until very, very recently. Or how about this: does it interest you to know that the professions you’ve classed as being inherently gendered – “caring” professions, like primary teaching and nursing for women; serious, manly professions, like science, military service and doctoring for men – aren’t always skewed that way? Once upon a time, teaching – even primary teaching – was a male-dominated profession; only comparatively recently has it swung the other way. In Russia, most doctors are women, and thanks to the ability of sexism to devalue women’s work, whatever it is, Russian doctors are grossly underpaid, just as nurses are in the West.In Finland, 50% of doctors are women, while in the UK, female doctors are set to outnumber men by 2017 – just three years away – despite the fact that they’re still paid 25% less than their male colleagues. And this is all deeply relevant, because one of the reasons nursing has traditionally been female-dominated is because the modern profession was formally begun by a woman, Florence Nightingale. At a time when women were more or less prohibited from becoming doctors, Nightingale found a way to teach women medicine on an organised scale – but that doesn’t mean that modern nurses are any less medicine-focussed or inherently more nurturing than doctors. For both, the work is hard, technical and emotionally draining, but because nursing, despite being vital, is seen as being feminine, it continues to be undervalued and underpaid.  

As for women in the military – well. I could write you a whole different essay on that, Mr Delingpole. I could talk about the compulsory military service for women in Israelthe fact that the first female marine, Opha Mae Johnson, joined in 1918the thousands on thousands of Soviet women who served on the front line in WWII, only to be demonised and forgotten; the Night Witches; the Dahomey Amazons;  the tale of Khutulun; the large numbers of female Viking warriors archaeologists originally assumed to be male, simply because they were buried with swords (which is also what happened in the case of this Etruscan warrior prince – sorry, princess); the women serving currently in armies around the world, and you know what? I could do this all day, Mr Delingpole, but the point is that if you’re trying to argue that warfare is an inherently masculine preoccupation, such that women have only taken it up since the pernicious advent of gender-neutral parenting, feminism run amok and modern, “zappy” headmistresses, then you are wrong, wrong, wrong. Thanks to sexism, you probably didn’t learn about it in school, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, and it sure as hell doesn’t mean that women warriors are unnatural or rare.

Women can be arrogant risk-takers who make fantastic breakthroughs. Men can be empathic, loving caregivers. That’s not because feminism is trying desperately to upset the natural order of things – that is the natural order of things, no matter how often various cultures have tried to pretend otherwise, because human beings are not wholly defined by our gender.

This doesn’t mean that girls can’t do boy things and vice versa.

Really, Mr Delingpole? Because you seem to have expended a great deal of energy trying to argue exactly that.

Lego for example has had great success with its new specialist toy range aimed at girls, which helped drive up its profits by 35 per cent. 

But this wasn’t because Lego suddenly discovered that girls were just as interested in construction toys as boys. 

It is because – much to the annoyance of feminists – Lego cunningly designed the new range in demeaning, stereotypical sexist pinks and purples and turned the astronauts and highway patrolmen into puppies and pretty girls.

Actually, no – allow me, once again, to set the record straight. Prior to their introduction of the pink-and-purple, female-oriented Lego Friends range, Lego was already successfully selling their products to girls. As these vintage Lego ads clearly show, Lego was originally marketed a gender-neutral toy: in fact, I grew up playing with Legos, as did pretty much every other child – male and female – of my generation. But as I’ve already explained, Mr Delingpole, toy companies like their profits, and a clear way to make parents buy more Lego is to create a new kind, one that encourages them to buy two different sets – a Lego for boys, and a Lego for girls – rather than just the one, shared product. I don’t doubt that Lego Friends has found a market, likely even attracting new customers in the process, but the idea that girls weren’t playing with Lego prior to this – that they only became interested in building once they could make hairdressing salons and play with pink bricks – is demonstrably absurd, a claim debunked not only by the testimony of every girl and woman who played with the stuff before then, but by Lego’s own advertising history. This is what social engineering really looks like: a campaign to convince little girls they suddenly need a different, special type of Lego than the one they’ve always played with, because the proper stuff is for boys.

When my niece was growing up and my brother wanted to recruit her as a companion on his military re-enactment expeditions he conducted a similar successful experiment.

At first being a girl Freya just couldn’t be persuaded to care that much about war and weaponry.

Then one day my brother hit on an ingenious solution. He bought her a toy gun, painted it pink with pretty flowers down the side, called it a Barbie Gun and it became her most treasured possession.

MP Liz Truss, I gather, has two daughters so if she fancies making them a couple of Barbie guns to help them combat society’s ingrained sexism I’m sure my brother would happily send her the colour scheme.

I have no doubt that’s exactly what happened – but in all the times you’ve told this story, Mr Delingpole, have you ever stopped to wonder why? As I’ve already stated, pink isn’t an inherently girl-attracting colour, as evidenced by the fact that it’s only been marketed as girl-exclusive since the 1940s. Girls like pink because girls are trained to like pink, which is the exact same reason that boys now tend to avoid it; because literally every single thing that’s branded as being “for girls” is either pink or purple, and boys are socially punished for liking pink or feminine things. Growing up as a girl, it’s virtually impossible not to end up with a wardrobe and toybox full of pink things, even if – as was the case with me – it’s not your favourite colour. What it has undeniably become, however, is a symbol of femininity. Girls are trained to view pink as theirs, as something that cannot be taken from them. Nobody questions a girl in pink: it’s safe, and can therefore become a source of strength. Your niece didn’t have some innate, fundamental objection to toy guns simply because of her gender – she was hesitant to play a game that every single aspect of her life had told her was for boys only. But when your brother made her a girly gun, he sent her the message that guns could be girly, too, and that playing with them was therefore acceptable. He told her that guns could be for girls, not by appealing to some inherent, chromosonal attraction to the colour pink, but by manipulating the social convention that says it’s absolutely right and OK for girls to enjoy pink anything.

How do I know this? Because your niece isn’t alone in her experience. I’ve heard stories of little boys who’ve expressed a desire to own and play with ‘feminine’ toys, like dolls and ponies, when offered versions that were mocked up in dark, ‘boy’ colours, like red and black. Walk into any store that sells baby clothes, and look at the striking difference in the colour schemes: pinks and purples and pastels for girls, and lashings of red, blue, black, green and bright everything for boys. We dress our kids this way from birth, most of us without questioning it, and even before they’re walking and talking, we buy them toys that confirm to gender stereotypes, with dollies for girls and trucks for boys. We teach them that boys and girls are fundamentally different – not always with words, but absolutely with actions. Children learn from example, and they do so early, that pink means girl and blue means boy. We teach them to laugh at boys with long hair, to puzzle over little girls who like spiders and dinosaurs. On the playground, they learn gender discrimination – they police each other from day one, because that’s what adults have taught them to do, however unthinkingly. And then we get surprised, and sigh, and act as though biology alone can explain it, when some girls only feel comfortable using toy guns and building blocks that are coloured pink.

But it seems a bit of a waste of talent to me. Though I love my boy and girl equally I am in little doubt that females are manifestly the superior species in almost every way: more articulate, more empathetic, more resilient and more capable of multi-tasking.

This may come as a shock to you, Mr Delingpole, but benevolent sexism is still sexism. Saying girls are somehow fundamentally “superior” for their innate possession of various traits isn’t complimentary; it’s a covert way of praising women who conform to outdated gender stereotypes while mocking, rebuking, exclusing or demonising those who don’t. Girls aren’t made of sugar and spice and all things nice, just as boys aren’t made of slugs and snails and puppydog tails. We are human beings, just as capable as the next person, whoever they are, of being venal, arrogant, greedy, abusive, stammering, callous, single-minded and anything else you’d care to name. To impose on us the burden of being moral and social caregivers – the sweet, smiling stoics whose biological destiny is to rein in the destructive impulses of angry, aggressive, goal-oriented men – is to deny us the full range of our humanity; and more, to implicitly blame us when the men in our lives get out of control, for failing to use our feminine wiles to soothe them. Don’t limit us to the sort of roles you’re clearly unwilling to adopt yourself. Don’t put us on a pedestal we neither deserve nor want. Let us be flawed and wonderful; let us be human, and don’t think we’re being unfeminine when we dare to stray outside the bounds you’ve arbitrarily set for us.

Why would you want to steer someone like that into a boring, obsessional field such as maths, chemistry or car design? Girls deserve better than that.  

No, Mr Delingpole. Girls deserve better than to have men like you decide that they deserve better than their passions. “Boring, obsessional” fields, as you term them, are neither boring nor obsessional to those who love them, whatever their gender. Don’t presume to tell us that the “better” we deserve is to get married, knocked up and spend the rest of our lives raising children, just because you’d feel slightly more comfortable if we did. Don’t try to couch your sexism as protectionism, as though little girls everywhere need to be shielded from the scary predations of straw feminists out to turn them into truck-driving lesbians by throwing all their Barbies onto the fire. Don’t tell any more teenage girls that their ambitions are worth less than their reproductive potential. In fact, don’t say anything at all.

Just shut up, and listen, and learn. Because right now? You are the problem.

Furiously,

Foz Meadows

ETA on 25.1.14: Behold the sexist majesty of James Delingpole’s Twitter response to a woman who called this article fabulous:

James Delingpole being a sexist ass on Twitter, 25.01.14

And again, which, ew:

James Delingpole being a sexually harassing ass on Twitter, 25.01.14

Male feminists, however, are apparently “beneath contempt”:

James Delingpole anti male feminists on Twitter, 25.01.14

But it’s OK, guys! Because Delingpole isn’t really being a sexist ass – he’s just goading me:

James Delingpole goading on Twitter, 25.1.14

 

Only, no: he’s also really serious about feminists being ugly:

James Delingpole on feminists on Twitter, 25.1.14