Archive for 2012

Here’s a contentious statement: A writer’s personal politics cannot ever be wholly disentangled from what they write. Stories reflect our culture even as they shape it, and as culture is an intrinsically political concept — in the sense of not only shaping and reflecting the politics of the people within it, but actively seeking to comment on how and why this happens — so too is storytelling. At base, fiction is an attempt to answer two different questions with a single answer: nobody can ask what if without first establishing what is. Assumption is as much a part of narrative as invention, and often betrays as much, if not more of the writer than anything they consciously create. Like it or not, our politics — by which I mean, our moral, social and spiritual beliefs about the world as refined through the lens of our individual biases, ignorance, privileges and experience — drive our assumptions; and in fiction, our conscious and unconscious beliefs about what is become the parts of the story we assume the reader already knows — the characters, tropes and logic we assume to be universal, or at least unimportant, and which therefore require neither examination by the audience nor explanation by us. They’re our personal default settings, where personal is the operative word: not everyone will share them, and we forget that at our peril.

For instance: as a teenager, I wrote a number of escapist stories that all began with a bored, frustrated girl of about my age being suddenly rescued from maths class by magic, aliens or something similarly fantastic. I’ll give you three guesses as to my least favourite subject — but while I was fully aware of replicating my own bias, I never saw the harm in doing so. And why would I have? It was my bias. The fact that it was fairly benign doesn’t change its status as an assumption, viz: an aspect of the story that I didn’t intend the prospective reader to question, and whose universality I therefore took for granted — not because I thought that everyone secretly hated maths, but because I wasn’t interested in the feelings and opinions of people who liked it. While the primary point of narrative is certainly to make the reader think, imagine and question beyond the norm, that can only happen if both reader and writer agree on what normal actually is; and if the reader’s own opinions and experiences aren’t encompassed by the writer’s take on what’s normative — if, in fact, they are absent altogether, or else marginalised, twisted and scoffed at — and the reader notices the dissonance, then the likelihood is that they’ll become hostile to the author, or at least to their assumptions, and conclude that the speculative, what if elements are fundamentally flawed by virtue of having been extrapolated from an inaccurate view of reality.

Here’s another, considerably less benign assumption my teenage self made: that white people live in cities and towns, while brown people live in tribal groups in the forest, desert or plains. Not that I’d have phrased it that way if you asked me outright — obviously, I knew people of all nationalities could live in all types of places! But subconsciously, from the culture in which I lived and the tropes I’d absorbed from exposure to other narratives, I’d nonetheless internalised the idea that the type of civilisation I found familiar must always be the work of white people. One brief flash of self-awareness at the age of 14 made me wonder if, just maybe, there was something offensive in my having a lone black character speak in broken English; the thought made me profoundly uncomfortable, and hopefully to my credit, I abandoned that version of the story not longer after. The one that ultimately replaced it, however, while certainly better in some respects — brown people building cities! egads! — was just as racially inept as its predecessors. This time, I wrote about a continent where the indigenous race was dark-skinned, long-lived, innately magical and not-quite-human, and where the human population was descended either from escaped slaves (black) or colonist farmers (white) — and despite having ostensibly created a setting where white-skinned humans were the minority and had arrived last of all, I still managed to have a light-skinned royal family and predominantly white protagonists.

The fact that I had good intentions doesn’t make those early stories any less problematic, and while it’s true that I wasn’t trying to write politically about race, that doesn’t change the fact that I’d internalised enough negative stereotypes that not only had I failed to recognise them as negative, I didn’t even understand they were stereotypes. I had simply assumed that the tropes I’d employed were acceptable, neutral defaults, as inoffensive and apolitical as the classic fantasy usage of elves and dwarves. But our choices always speak to our opinions, whether we mean them to or not. Familiarity is synonymous with neither inoffensiveness nor neutrality, and while the infinite variety of human taste and experience makes it impossible to please everybody, let alone equally, there’s a wealth of difference between causing offence by actively challenging the assumptions of others, and causing offence by failing to challenge your own.

And the thing is, even if you’re aiming for the former option, you won’t always succeed: partly because, as stated, it’s impossible to please everyone, but mostly because we all still need some basic assumptions to work from. A single piece of fiction cannot question the entirety of itself, because then you’d be questioning questions — an infinite recursion without answer or end. But that doesn’t mean there’s no reason to ever challenge assumptions, either; the point is to accept that, all too often, it’s the things we take for granted — the things we neither explain nor question — that say the most about us as writers, political beings, and as people. The argument that stories shouldn’t be judged for anything their authors think is irrelevant therefore strikes me as having fundamentally missed the point of criticism: Creators shouldn’t have a monopoly on interpreting what they’ve made, while the assumptions which underpin a work are just as important as the inventions which make it unique.

To take one example, I’ve written before, in detail, about my issues with default narrative sexism in SFF: instances where fictional worlds and cultures are anchored in sexist social logic for no better reason than that the authors have assumed its existence either to be so fundamental to sentience, or its use as a trope so unremarkable in narrative, that they never considered excluding it. Or, alternatively, their efforts to write an equal society might come burdened with a whole new set of sexist assumptions, the most common one being to masculinise women without feminising men — there’ll be plenty of empowered female soldiers, leaders and spies, but not so many male nurses, teachers and domestics. (A big part of real-world sexism is still to exalt traditionally male pursuits as being objectively desirable for everyone while discrediting female ones as being objectively undesirable for everyone, but particularly for men.)

And then there’s the current, depressing trend in YA discrimiflip novels: stories which all too often base their supposedly egalitarian messages on simplistic, binary notions of discrimination and privilege by taking a mainstream, powerful group (men, the cisgendered, straights, white people, the able-bodied) and turning them into the victims of those their privilege currently discriminates against (women, QUILTBAG people, POC, the differently abled). Ostensibly, this is meant to engender sympathy for the other side among members of privileged groups, but when poorly handled — as, with few notable exceptions, it overwhelmingly seems to be — the egalitarian intention is buried by the surrounding weight of negative assumptions, foremost of which is the idea that there’s anything simple or binary about discrimination to begin with. The most notable recent example of such a discrimiflip novel is arguably Victoria Foyt’s Revealing Eden, where white people are Pearls and black people are Coals, but there are others, too: Laura Preble’s forthcoming Out, where Perpendiculars (straights) are considered abnormal in a world run by Parallels (gays), and Claire Merle’s The Glimpse, which, while not a straight social flip, nonetheless pits Crazies (those with mental illnesses) against Pures (who don’t).

Which brings me, at long last, to the overwhelming number of YA-related arguments in the recent past over issues such as romance, racism, feminism, conduct and reviewing, and what strikes me as being the primary unifying factor in every instance: the presence of a dispute about interpretation versus intention — which is to say, a criticism of the author’s assumptions on the one hand, which cannot help but also be a partial critique of the author themselves, and the assertion that such criticism is unreasonable, irrelevant or unfair. Over and over again, in arguments about the portrayal of romance in YA novels (for instance), certain authors have been accused of presenting as healthy and desirable relationships which critics claim are literally abusive, toxic and dangerous, and regardless of where you might stand when it comes to individual novels, the fact remains that this debate has been stymied in large part by an overwhelming uncertainty as to whether such criticism is valid, and if so, to what extent.

The recent emergence of YA as a mainstream, successful genre and the overwhelming popularity of series like Twilight among both teenage and adult readers has fundamentally altered the concept of YA reviewing — which is to say, has ended its status as a separate kind of reviewing altogether. Prior to the advent of Harry Potter, it seems fair to say that YA novels were reviewed, not as books that anyone might like to read, but as books for children, the crucial difference being that, as children weren’t (and to a certain extent still aren’t) presumed to care about issues like politics, equality, feminism, bias and privilege, pretty much nobody was reviewing YA novels with those aspects in mind, let alone considering that their handling, presence or absence might be a relevant factor in judging the success of a given book. After all, we’ve traditionally maintained different critical standards for stories that are intended purely for entertainment value — action movies, for instance, are still graded wholly differently to serious drama — and prior to J. K. Rowling, what else was YA meant to be for but entertaining children? Certainly, there’s a long history of literary praise for youthfully-oriented issues-based novels, but that’s still a far cry from mainstream cultural analysis, and anything that smacked even slightly of magic or escapism was exempt from scrutiny (until or unless it was old and vaunted enough to be deemed a ‘classic’, of course, in which case scholars were right to treat it with reverence).

But now, in addition to the rise of digital reviewing – which, as I’ve said before, is particularly skewed towards genre novels – YA is being treated seriously. Not only did the success of Twilight prompt a flood of romantically similar titles, all of which have found themselves subject to the same scrutiny vis-a-vis the promotion of stalking and female passivity as the original, but it directly contributed to YA being critiqued for things like whitewashing, straightwashing, cultural appropriation, sexism, racism and homophobia, too — issues which had previously been the critical domain of mainstream literature, if and when they were discussed at all. Which, often enough, they weren’t, literary fiction being possessed of its own, separate-but-related battles with misogyny, classism, genre snobbishness and white male homogeneity. (Suggesting, perhaps, yet another reason why so much political literary criticism has fallen on YA of late: the old establishment still has its barriers up, so that those of us who wish to critique the negative assumptions of writers as manifested in fiction and deemed reflective of society have necessarily had to look elsewhere.) But still, the tension between those who view YA as pure escapism and those who hold it to a greater accountability remains, well, tense — because for every writer of YA who isn’t trying to be political, but whose assumptions about what is necessarily encode their opinions anyway, there’s a flock of readers ready and waiting to dissect their work as a manifestation of culture.

A writer’s personal politics cannot ever be wholly disentangled from what they write; nor should they be, regardless of the intended age of the audience. Though pop cultural analysis has been sneered at in some quarters as an attempt to give trash entertainment a significance far above its station, it can’t be denied that the mainstream is a powerful reflection of our collective cultural subconscious: the assumptions and stereotypes we all quietly learn from childhood, but which many of us never learn to recognise openly, let alone question. Every time we construct a story without any thought as to the assumptions we’ve made that underpin it — assumptions about race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, ableness, privilege, ignorance, bias, identity — we run the risk of replicating the very problems we might otherwise condemn; or at the very least, of being lazy thinkers. The fact that it’s impossible to please everybody shouldn’t make us afraid to challenge ourselves or others; rather, we should try harder to ensure that we’re not alienating people through ignorance. But most importantly of all, we need to accept that no story is told in a vacuum: that the politics, beliefs and assumptions of authors are at least as important to the structure and creation of their narratives as those elements which are purely fictional — and that sometimes, there can be real and significant overlap between the two.

Warning: total spoilers.

I hadn’t planned on watching Doctor Who tonight for the same reason that I didn’t watch the most recent Christmas special, viz: a complete lack of faith in Steven Moffat’s ability to competently write and manage the series. My husband, however, was curious, with the result that we sat down to watch it over dinner. And even though the end result was just as frustrating as I’d feared it would be, having gone to the effort of watching, it seems wrong (or at least, deeply uncharacteristic) not to bother with analysing why.

Thus, I bring you Asylem of the Daleks: a review in three parts.

Part 1: Plot

Amy Pond is still a model, she and Rory are getting divorced, and the Daleks are back: in fact, they’re running prison camps on Skaro, where the Doctor has been summoned to try and rescue an unknown woman’s daughter. As it turns out, however, the woman herself is a trap: she’s actually a Dalek puppet – there’s an eyestalk in her forehead and a laser in her hand, both of which are apparently retractable – and the Doctor is promptly zapped (along with Amy and Rory, natch) aboard a spaceship containing the Dalek Parliament. Naturally, this is cause for alarm, until it becomes apparent that the Daleks actually want the Doctor to save them – a ship has crashed on the Dalek asylum planet, raising the possibility that its mad, bad inhabitants might escape, and because the Daleks are too afraid to go down and turn the force field off so they can bomb it, they want ‘the Predator of the Daleks’ to do it for them. (Amy and Rory are there because ‘the Doctor requires companions’.)

Let’s list the problems in order, shall we?

1) Skaro was destroyed in the Time War – which is to say, declared nonexistent and irretrievable – and nobody mentions this.

2) The Daleks were destroyed in the Time War – meaning they can only show up if they’re listed as having escaped it somehow, which these ones aren’t – and nobody mentions this.

3) Apparently there are human prison camps on Skaro – even though it’s the Dalek homeworld and they exist to exterminate, not enslave – and nobody mentions this.

4) Daleks are not their armour – making the eystalk and laser combination seem deeply weird as a means of indicating Dalek control – and nobody mentions this.

5) Daleks are obsessed with their own genetic perfection: we’ve had multiple episodes detailing their disgust for human impurity, to the point of committing genocide against a human-Dalek hybrid race, and yet apparently they’re OK with manipulating human corpses and putting the resultant hybrid entities in positions of command – and nobody mentions this.

6) Thousands of Daleks, their entire Parliament, the ship in which they reside and the asylum planet have all apparently survived the Time War, even though this is pretty much impossible – and nobody mentions this.

7) The Daleks want the Doctor to help them because they’re all afraid of the asylum inhabitants – and this is treated as normal, instead of absolutely mind-blowing.

8) The Doctor is called ‘the Predator of the Daleks’, a name he’s never heard before, even though he’s known in their mythology as the Oncoming Storm – and nobody mentions this.

9) At no point is the Doctor or anyone else surprised to see so many Daleks roaming about – and nobody mentions this.

10) At no point does the Doctor rail against the existence of the Daleks or even contemplate refusing to help – and nobody mentions this.

In other words: the entire fucking premise is a retcon of epic proportions, undoing a major part of the Doctor’s characterisation and history as established not only since the 2005 reboot, but since Moffat himself took over – and not only is this done casually, in the sense of having no build up or cathartic explanation, but not a single character thinks there’s anything odd about it. Which leaves me to conclude that it was done for no better reason than that Moffat thought the Daleks asking the Doctor for help was such a cool idea that taking the time to integrate it with the existing continuity or explain things at all would only detract from the shiny cool surprise of having a zany madcap adventure that doesn’t make sense. And given the lengthy history of Doctor Who, it strikes me as being supremely disrespectful of the story, world and characters to make such sweeping alterations to the canon out of laziness and ineptitude – as a byproduct of a ‘cool’ idea, instead of to a deliberate, actual purpose.

Part 2: Characterisation

Emotionally, Asylum has four main players: the Doctor, Rory, Amy and Oswin, a perky, flirty, genius girl trapped on the planet after her ship crash landed a year ago (and who’s played by the actress signed as the next companion). We’ll get to her in a minute, though, because first there’s the Amy/Rory dilemma to deal with. We first see Amy posing on a fashion shoot, and when Rory appears, it’s to get her to sign the divorce papers. Later, it’s revealed that the reason for the split is Amy’s inability to have children – or at least, more children – after what was done to her at Demon’s Run: knowing Rory wanted kids, she let him go rather than force him to endure a childless partnership, though until her inevitable damselling forces her to reveal this fact (she lost her special bracelet and was steadily being taken over by Dalek symbiot-eyestalk-implanting nanites or something, of course) he was apparently unaware of why she kicked him out.

And I just… OK. Look. Being as how I’m currently four months pregnant, it’s conceivable (hah! pun!) that I’m more sensitive than usual about plots of this nature, especially when they’re bullshit. But it seems to me that, what with her previous child having been stolen from her and raised by psychopaths after she was mindraped and imprisoned throughout her pregnancy, Amy might reasonably be expected to have a few more issues about getting knocked up than simply being sad that she can’t do it. And not only does no one mention River Song, let alone adoption, but Rory never says anything to the effect of caring more about Amy than about biological offspring – they just magically reconcile when, by all accounts, the actual problem that caused the split hasn’t gone away. And in any case, it strikes me as being excruciatingly cheap to have two characters who’ve literally been to the ends of time for each other break up off screen*, just so your can put them back together again in the next breath.

And then, of course, we have Oswin: a trapped girl who can endlessly hack the Dalek systems, and who has apparently spent the last year making soufles and listening to opera while awaiting rescue. We hear her speaking over the com and playing her music, as do the Doctor, Amy and Rory; we even see her hanging out in her wrecked-yet-cosy spaceship. But in an episode where every other human turns out to have been a Dalek-puppet, the Big Reveal – that Oswin was turned into a full-blown Dalek straight after landing –  is as predictable as it is stupid. Even ignoring the overall continuity questions this raises (how did the crazy Daleks manage it? where did they get the facilities? why and how was she allowed to retain her human personality?), there’s a massive goof in the fact that, when the Doctor reaches her, she’s shown as a Dalek chained in a room: her speaking voice is a Dalek voice, and she has no visible access to anything. How, then, has she been speaking to the Doctor in a voice that was recognisibly that of  a human girl? Where did the opera music come from? Why is she chained up, forgotten and unguarded, if the point of making her Dalek was to orchestrate an escape? How is she controlling everything when she doesn’t have any access to the asylum’s systems – or at least, no access that we can see? How does any of this work?

The answer is, it doesn’t: characteristically, Moffat has gone for the twist-reveal at the total and utter expense of logic. The solution simply doesn’t make sense – but then, neither did the premise, so what else was I expecting?

Part 3: Conclusion

Asylum of the Daleks is shoddily written, poorly constructed and atrociously characterised, all in the name of Shit That Looks Cool If You Have A Limited Attention Span And Don’t Stop To Think About It. Nothing in the script feels necessary to the plot: there’s lots of running through dark hallways interspersed with Daleks repeating themselves and dead/dying women being sad, but none of it so much as winks at the glaring, legitimate questions raised by the sheer nonsensical retconning and outright illogic of both premise and conclusion, which means that the whole episode feels like a badly-managed segue. Even the pacing is flabby: as difficult as it is to make a half-hour episode of action-drama feel both too short (in the sense of not addressing anything relevant) and overlong (in the sense of consisting entirely of things that don’t matter), Steven Moffat has managed the double whammy with aplomb.

And from what I can see, the rest of Season 7 looks to be more of the same: ideas that are flash and dazzle when glimpsed in brief, but which otherwise make no sense, not because they’re inherently unworkable, but because Moffat can’t be bothered to make them work. If I watch them, it’ll be down to a combination of my husband’s love of crap TV and narrative rubbernecking: I simply can’t believe how badly in need of editing his work is. Which, ultimately, is what it all boils down to: the only explanation for the marked drop in skill and execution between Moffat’s stellar episodes under RTD and what he’s producing now is the absence of anyone with the power to red pen to his scripts and tweak them until they’re presentable. He’s certainly never lacked for exciting ideas, but when it comes to narrative logic, pacing and characterisation, he’s far more miss than hit.

*No, I haven’t seen the Pond Life prequels; yes, I know the last episode ends with Rory walking away and Amy in tears. We still don’t get the reason until Asylum, and after everything Moffat’s put them through, giving them a kiss-and-make-up moment in literally the next episode is still unbelievably cheap.

Trigger warning: predatory behaviour, creepiness, sexual assault.

Yesterday, I read this account of creepy stalking behaviour retold by a woman whose husband had witnessed it first-hand and subsequently described the incident to her in detail. During the course of her husband’s recitation, the woman asked him what she refers to as The Question, capitalised because, once asked, he stopped seeing the creeper as simply being awkward and inappropriate and started seeing him as frightening and potentially dangerous. And as I was reading, something clicked in my head regarding an incident which, approximately sixteen years ago, left me deeply unsettled, and which continues to unsettle me in memory. It’s not a story I’ve ever told more than once or twice, partly because even now, at the age of 26, I find it as difficult to articulate as I did at age 10, but mostly because, up until yesterday, I didn’t know how to convey the the thing that most bothered me about it, because when it happened, I was too young to ask The Question, and until yesterday, I hadn’t known I could ask it retrospectively. But now I can, and so I’m going to put it all on record.

I don’t remember my precise age, though ten seems the best guess: certainly, I was no older than eleven, and I doubt I was younger than eight. The occasion was a child’s birthday party – not one of my close friends, but a family friend, a son or daughter of someone from my mother’s extended social circle. The setting was a restaurant: all the adults were at a big table in the front room having a roaring party of their own, while the kids were in another out the back, with music and balloons and a trestle table against the far wall where the presents and party bags were. I remember that the kids’ room lead directly outside in two directions – one past the kitchen, one past the toilets and storage room – and that there was no direct line of sight, or indeed point of access, between the adults’ room and ours: you had to pass through a third dining room, occupied by other patrons, to get between them. I remember, too, that I was pretty much on my own: I knew the other kids, but I wasn’t great friends with any of them, and so was standing alone when one of the waiters approached me.

To my child’s perception, he was a youthful-looking adult; in memory, I’d say he was in his twenties. He was blonde and not bad-looking, but something about his eyes bothered me, and when he spoke, he addressed me by name.

“Hello, Philippa,” he said. “That’s a pretty name.”

I felt uneasy. “How do you know my name?”

I have never forgotten, nor will ever forget, the type of smile that accompanied his response. It was a wrong smile, a shark smile, a greasy smile that flicked his mouth up at the left corner and which didn’t match the intensity of his eyes, which were pale blue. His answer, too, I recall verbatim.

He said: “I read it on your lovely little lolly bag.”

And in that moment, I was frightened. I knew, with an absolute certainty, that the waiter shouldn’t have talked to me; that I needed to get as far away from him as possible. I don’t remember what I said to excuse myself, or if I even said anything at all: either way, I went straight to the room where the adults were, determined to tell someone what had happened, because over and over, when you were taught about stranger danger at school, you were told to tell an adult. I got right up next to my mother; I stood beside her chair and waited for a pause in the conversation. There must have been ten or more adults present, and all of them were laughing at something, presumably a joke. When my mother had finished laughing, she turned to me and asked me what I wanted. I opened my mouth, but all at once, my confidence failed. I didn’t know what to say; I didn’t know how to describe the fear I’d felt or the reason for it in a way that would make sense, or that would give the adults something to act on if I did. The waiter hadn’t done anything but talk to me. What if I was wrong? What if they laughed at me, too? What if I ruined their evening?

“Nothing,” I said. “It doesn’t matter.”

But it did matter, because I didn’t feel safe. So strong was my fear that I left the kids’ room and spent the rest of the evening sitting just outside the back entrance to the kitchen, where I was constantly in view of the adult staff. More than once, I was asked if I wanted to go back inside, and each time I said no, I was fine, thanks for asking, I just liked being out in the air. Eventually, one of the other girls at the party came out and sat with me. We talked for a while, and when she asked why I was sitting there, I whispered in her ear that the blonde waiter made me uncomfortable, and so I was keeping away from him – and in reply, she whispered back that she felt weird around him, too. From time to time, I saw him looking at me from inside the kids’ room; he had to walk past my seat to get to and from the kitchen, too, but he didn’t try to talk to me again, presumably because we were guaranteed an audience.

I sat outside for the rest of the night, until it was time to go home. I never told any adults, and in the years since, I’ve often wondered if that was ultimately a good thing or a bad thing. My fear was certainly real, and the phrase lovely little lolly bag still strikes me as being very creepily worded. But still, what does that prove? Nothing actually happened, and apart from my own deep sense of unease, I have no evidence that I was actually in danger. What if I’d raised suspicions about someone who, though seemingly creepy to me, was ultimately harmless? But then again, what if he really had posed a threat? What if the fact that I didn’t speak up meant that, somewhere down the line, he ultimately acted against someone else? In either case, I have no way of knowing. But yesterday, I finally thought to ask The Question, which went a long way towards explaining my unease. Viz:

If the waiter learned my name from my lolly bag, how did he match it to my face?

The only answer is: he was watching me. I wasn’t the only girl at the party; he would’ve had to tell me apart from the others. And he couldn’t have just eavesdropped it, either – then as now, both my actual family and all our family friends called me Foz, and while it’s conceivably possible that one of the adults might have used my full name at some point, it’s also very unlikely given that they spent the majority of the night in a different room. Certainly, the other kids would never have called me Philippa, and in any case, even before the waiter spoke to me, I’d mostly been standing alone. And then there’s the incongruity of him talking to me at all. I’ve worked as a waitress, and when you’ve got a big party taking up two whole rooms of the restaurant plus regular customers in the third, you don’t have time to stop and talk to children. But this man did, and even though it’s taken the power of hindsight for me to understand exactly how odd it all was, my instincts at the time still screamed at me that something was amiss.

There’s a poisonous double standard in our society which says that it’s reverse-sexist and wrong for women to feel threatened by creepy-awkward male behaviour because our fear implies that we hold the negative, stereotypical view that All Men Are Predators, but that if we’re raped or sexually assaulted by any man with whom we’ve had prior social interaction – and particularly if he’s expressed some sexual or romantic interest in us during that time – it’s reasonable for observers to ask what precautions we took to prevent the assault from happening, or to suggest that we maybe led the guy on by not stating our feelings plainly. The result is a situation where women are punished if we reject, avoid or identify creepy men, and then told it’s our fault if we’re assaulted by someone we plainly ought to have rejected, avoided, identified.

And sometimes, even our rejections are ignored. Here’s another story: when I was twelve or thirteen, a boy at my high school developed a crush on me. He asked me out; I said no. He asked me out again; I still said no. One would think that my feelings had been made abundantly clear by this point, but apparently not: his next step was to follow me around every lunch and recess for over a week declaring that he loved me. During this time, I told him repeatedly to fuck off, go away, I didn’t like him, he was making me uncomfortable; on multiple occasions when he came too close, I even resorted to physically shoving him back. When that still didn’t work, I started running away, literally running, right to the other side of the campus if need be; he wasn’t fast enough to follow in the moment, so he started sending messengers after me, other boys who, amused by the absurdity of the situation, thought it was great fun to track me down, wherever I was, and tell me that this boy loved me, and wouldn’t I come and speak to him, go out with him? So then I had to hide from them, too: the only place I was safe was the girl’s toilets, where they were forbidden to go. At one point, a pair of senior girls saw me loitering by the sink and asked what I was doing; I had to explain that I was being chased by boys, and this was the only place I could hide from them. The situation finally came to a head when some other boys were alerted to my harassment by my female friends, and joined our group one day as a sort of protection detail: when the boy who liked me showed up and started professing his love, two of them physically attacked him – a few hard shoves and punches – and warned him to stay away.

He listened to them.

I’ve written before about my brush with sexual assault at university; two incidents which, despite leaving me unscathed, nonetheless serve as reinforcement for the idea that persistence in matters of sex and romance, even once the girl has said no, are considered a male prerogative in our culture. Indeed, the idea of ‘winning the girl’ – of overcoming female objections or resistance through repeated and frequently escalating efforts – is central to most of our modern romantic narratives. (Female persistence, by contrast, is viewed as pathetic.) And the more I think about instances of creepiness, harassment and stalking that culminate in either the threat or actuality of sexual assault, the more I’m convinced that a massive part of the problem is this socially sanctioned idea that men are fundamentally entitled to persist. Because if men are meant to persist, then women who say no must only be rejecting the attempt, not the man himself, so that every separate attempt becomes one of a potentially infinite number of keys which might just fit the lock of the woman’s approval. She’s not the one who’s allowed to say no, not really; she should be silent and passive as a locked door, waiting patiently while the man runs through however many keys he can be bothered trying. And if he gets sick of this lengthy process and just breaks in? Well, frustration under those circumstances is only natural. Either the door shouldn’t have been there to impede him, or it shouldn’t have been locked.

We tell children – and particularly young girls – to beware of creepy adult behaviour; to identify, report and avoid it. But at some point during adolescence, the message becomes reversed: if you’re old enough to consent, the logic seems to go, then suddenly you’re old enough that being too scared to say no, or having your no ignored, is your fault rather than your assailant’s. When adults behave creepily towards children, our first priority is to ascertain whether a threat is posed, because we’d rather call them out for their inappropriateness than risk a genuine threat being written off as harmless, particularly in instances where the child is visibly upset. Certainly, if a child ever came to you and said they didn’t feel safe or comfortable around a particular adult, you’d treat it as a very serious matter. And yet we don’t extend the same logic to people who behave creepily towards other adults – partly and very reasonably, it must be said, because adults are better able to defend themselves than children, and because, on the sexual side of things, children literally cannot consent to anything, whereas one adult propositioning another is not morally repugnant in and of itself, regardless of how creepily they choose to go about it.

But surely the threat of sexual assault is still legitimate and grave enough that it’s better to call someone out for being inappropriate and creepy than to risk a genuine threat being written off as harmless, particularly when the subject of their behaviour is visibly upset? Surely if a friend or colleague comes to you and says they don’t feel safe or comfortable around a particular person, this too is a serious matter? Because even if that person has the best of intentions, poses no threat and doesn’t mean to be creepy, the fact remains that they are still making someone uncomfortable, and that’s definitely worth addressing. As the excellent John Scalzi points out, you don’t get to define someone else’s comfort level with you: sure, it might suck that someone thinks you’re being creepy, but your hurt feelings at that verdict are ultimately less important than whether or not the other person feels safe. If you persist in bothering someone after they’ve made it clear they don’t like you, or in treating them in a manner to which they object simply because you, personally, see nothing wrong with it, then you are being an asshat: you are saying that their actual fear and discomfort are less important that your right to behave in a way that makes them afraid and discomforted, and if that’s the case, then why the hell shouldn’t they call you out?

I’ll never know if the waiter represented a genuine threat to me, or if he was simply creepy and harmless. But my fear was real, and that alone is enough to convince me that his behaviour, whatever his intentions, was inappropriate. Because ultimately, good intentions aren’t a get-out-of-jail-free card; you can’t use them to debunk accusations of creepiness any more than writers can use them to handwave accusations of having created racist or misogynist stories. Intention is not the same as effect, and if someone asks a question – The Question – to which you have no reasonable answer, then prepare to admit that you might be in the wrong.

Warning: total spoilers.

There’s a lot I want to say about Brave – plot, execution, structure, controversy, characterisation – but before I start all that, there’s something else to be dealt with first: the fact that, with literally one exception, no Disney princess has actual female friends. Instead, they have animals or talking objects, all of whom are either male or androgynous. Snow White and Aurora have forest creatures; Cinderella has singing mice; Ariel has Flounder and Sebastian; Belle has Chip, Lumiere and Cogsworth; Jasmine has Rajah; Pocahontas has Flit and Meeko; Mulan has Khan, Mushu and a cricket; Rapunzel has a chameleon; and now Merida has Angus, her horse. The exception is Tiana, who has a devoted female friend, Charlotte: however, there are still two animal sidekicks (Ray and Louis – again, both male), Tiana herself spends most of the film as a frog, and given the risk Disney perceived themselves to be taking when it came to the inclusion of their first black princess, my inner cynic cannot help but wonder if the reason for Charlotte’s prominent inclusion had less to do with promoting sisterhood than a ploy, however subconscious, to offset possible negative reaction’ to Tiana’s race by putting her alongside a traditionally likeable, non-threatening, blonde girl, who – thanks to the titular frog transformation – actually gets more human, princessy screentime than Tiana does herself.  Even so, the two girls have a loving, important friendship; the only other princess who gets anything even close to that is Pocahontas, who’s shown to be best friends with a girl called Nakoma; but her animals still play a much bigger role in the movie, and after Nakoma effectively betrays Pocahontas – thus fulfilling her narrative purpose – we never see them reconcile, presumably because the relationship isn’t deemed important enough to bother. Even if you stretch really far into the Disney archive and rummage around for other prominent female characters who aren’t official princesses – Megara, Kida, Thumbelina, Eilonwy – the same pattern still holds: all of them have leading men, but even in the absence of animals or other such companions, none has female friends.

Why am I bringing this up now? Because until today – until I saw Brave – I’d never even noticed; but part of the reason I did notice is because, unlike every other Disney princess and Pixar film, Brave is actually meant to be about female relationships: specifically, the mother-daughter bond. And in that context, I suddenly found myself wondering – where are Merida’s friends and playmates? Where are Elinor’s peers? Merida is the first princess without a romantic storyline, and even with all the focus on her relationship with her mother, it still felt telling that both characters existed in a seemingly lady-free vacuum. By contrast, every male character had visible friendships with other men: Fergus with the clan leaders and the clan leaders with each other. It wouldn’t have been hard to have the clan leaders bring their wives, thus enabling Elinor to have a scene among equals and actually act like a person; and by the same token, Merida could quite easily have had a female friend among the servants. At just 100 minutes, Brave is a short film which, unlike Pixar’s other offerings, manages to feel short, in the sense of having skimped on the characterisation. And to me, that missing ten to twenty minutes – the longer Pixar films tend to come in at somewhere between 110-120 – was all the more noticeable for being exactly the length of time you’d need to give either woman some friends and have them talk without competing.

Which isn’t to say I hated Brave: the animation was breathtakingly beautiful, the pacing worked, the comedy had me laughing at all the right junctures, and as far as positive rolemodels go, Merida is lightyears ahead of every other Disney princess simply by virtue of being the first teenager not to end up married or in an official relationship*. It was a good, even solid movie. But here’s the thing: Pixar isn’t known for doing good and solid. They do breathtaking, original, moving, powerful, classic, brilliant, delightful stuff. The only blemish on their otherwise stellar record, Cars 2, can be directly attributed to the meddling, marketeering hand of Disney, to whom they now owe their allegiance and, presumably, their souls. But when it comes to original stories, Pixar is – was – unparalleled. And it angers me that Brave is the film to further break that pattern: not just because it should’ve been so much better, but because the mid-production firing of Brenda Chapman, the original writer/director, will forever leave open the question of whether the problems in Brave were there from the beginning; or whether the decision to give what should’ve been Pixar’s first female-scripted, female-directed, female-inspired movie over to a man who, apart from anything else, had never previously directed a full-length feature, caused the film to reach somewhat less than its full potential; or whether it was a mix of both, and if so, to what extent.

So here’s the plot in brief: Princess Merida, a headstrong young lassie and peerless archer, chafes under the expectations of her mother, Queen Elinor. When Elinor announces the time has come for Merida’s betrothal, her daughter reacts with disbelief and anger, despite the fact that, as a princess, she would presumably have known this was on the cards. However, on learning that her suitors, the eldest sons of the three clan leaders,  must compete for her in a contest of her choosing – a contest whose wording specifies the entrants must be the firstborn child of a clan, not the firstborn son – Merida chooses archery and, in open defiance of Elinor, enters and wins the right to her own hand. An argument ensues; Merida slashes a tapestry of her family, literally cutting her mother out of the picture; Elinor retaliates by throwing Merida’s bow on the fire; and Merida flees into the night, leaving Elinor to pull the (still intact) bow from the flames and clap her hands to her mouth. Lead through the forest by magic will’o the wisps, Merida stumbles on a witch’s cottage and ends up with a magic cake, the purpose of which, rather nebulously, is to ‘change her fate’ if she feeds it to her mother. What actually happens, once she returns to the castle, is that Elinor turns into a bear. Mayhem ensues as Merida first sneaks Elinor out of the castle, then goes in search of a cure, eventually finding out that unless she can ‘mend the bond torn by pride’ before the second sunrise, the spell’s effects will be permanent. Interpreting this to mean that the slashed tapestry needs to be stitched up, Merida and Elinor the Bear reenter the castle, only to find themselves stymied by the presence of the clansmen. Merida distracts them with an apology and, following Elinor’s pantomimed instructions, a solution that the old tradition of forced marriage be abandoned. This is greeted well; the men head to the cellars; and both Elinor and Merida get back to the tapestry. But, of course, things go wrong again: Elinor is spotted, a bearhunt ensues, and Merida is locked up. From here, you can probably guess the ending: Merida escapes, stitches up the tapestry and, after a climactic fight scene, manages to place the tapestry around Elinor’s shoulders before the sun comes up – but in the end, it’s not the stitches that break the curse, but Merida’s apology for her behaviour. Cue the human restoration of a less strict, more sympathetic Elinor, and that’s a wrap.

Well, almost: those who’ve actually seen the film will notice I’ve left out any reference to the monster bear, Mordu, whose origins and defeat ostensibly serve as a combination of backstory, motive and framing device. You’ll also notice, however, that the above synopsis makes sense without it – which is actually part of the problem with Brave, albeit a comparatively minor one: that it actually has two separate plots, which, while technically interrelated – Mordu turns out to be an ancient prince transformed by the same spell Merida uses on her mother – are nonetheless so distinct both thematically and in terms of execution that it’s possible to describe the film entirely through reference to one without mentioning the other. It’s slipshod scripting, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to call the Mordu plot tacked on, it’s also extremely predictable, devoid of all Pixar’s usual unexpected yet sweetly cathartic gracenotes. There’s nothing at the end you couldn’t have picked at the beginning, and if you haven’t guessed the Big Reveal by about the halfway mark, either you’re not really paying attention or you’re probably not old enough to see the film unaccompanied. Again, this isn’t a cardinal sin – it’s just way below Pixar’s usual standard of excellence.

Part of the problem is their use of a traditional three-act structure, something their films have otherwise either actively subverted or avoided altogether – it’s an old-school Disney structure, in fact, and one that’s much less endearing than it is clunky when deployed sans the usual bridging musical numbers. Which isn’t  to say that Brave suffered on that count, but rather to point out that, as it’s the only non-musical Disney princess film, it’s conceivable that the imposition of a narrative structure that’s more usually fitted to Disney musicals – and I am going to say imposition, because I honestly can’t think of any other reason why Pixar would choose Brave, a film that already represented a departure from their norm, as the vehicle for a structure they’d previously eschewed, except that someone from Disney put their foot down – undermined a premise, to judge by what happened to Brenda Chapman, in which the studio already had less faith than usual.

More egregious in terms of error, however, is the fact that the main event – Elinor being turned into a bear – effectively hinges on an idiot plot. When Merida meets the witch, not only does she fail to explain the specific manner in which she wants her mother ‘changed’, she doesn’t stop to ask what the spell she’s been given will actually do. For a heroine who’s otherwise painted as intelligent, clever and resourceful, this is really a facepalm moment, and a massive oversight in terms of characterisation. It would be one thing if the witch were actively deceitful, lying either out of either malice or mischief; but instead, and seemingly for no better reason than to shoehorn in a few extra gags, she’s simply doddery, betraying zero awareness of the notion that her customers might not want to turn into bears. Never mind that her workshop is full of bear-themed carvings, which would seem to be something of a giveaway: it literally makes no sense that Merida would simply accept the magic cake on trust, without any attempt to properly uncover what its effects will be. The fact that, having established what the magic cake does, she not only leaves it in the kitchen but encourages her baby brothers to go inside and eat whatever they want only compounds the idiocy, cementing the fact that, in this instance at least, the desired plot outcome – more bears! – apparently trumped the need for consistent characterisation.

Which brings me to my single biggest problem with Brave: Elinor herself. Both early on and in flashbacks, we see her playing with the infant Merida – a loving, creative, supportive, attentive parent. Yet when we meet her during Merida’s adolescence, she presents as strict, staid, traditional; even nagging. We’re never given any insight into why she’s changed, nor given the impression that her stern facade is a mask she wears for Merida’s benefit. Like the bear spell, it’s seemingly more a function of necessity than of characterisation: Elinor needs to be antagonistic to Merida, and therefore she is, no matter how much dissonance that creates between her past and present selves. Crucially, we’re never encouraged to sympathise with Elinor in this state, and it’s noteworthy that even Merida, when thinking of Elinor’s good points, returns to memories of childhood rather than anything more recent. There are, however, plenty of gags at Elinor’s expense once she’s in her bear-form, and while I’ll admit to laughing at some of these, the bulk didn’t sit easily with me, particularly as so many seemed to be based on the absurdity of Elinor’s attempts to retain her human – but specifically dainty and feminine – mannerisms, despite Merida urging her to be more bear-like. In that context, it felt significant that Elinor’s real transformation – her sympathy for Merida – only happened once she started behaving like an animal and, as a consequence, having fun. Literally, that’s the comparison: the posh queen learns to empathise with her tomboy daughter, not by seeing things through her eyes, but by learning to disregard her own femininity in favour of behaving like a beast.

And that grated on me, not just because I resent the implication, however unintentional, that tomboyishness in girls can be reasonably compared to animalism, but because it made the reparation of Elinor and Merida’s relationship wholly one-sided. Elinor learns to respect Merida for who she is, but we never see the opposite happen: no sooner does Merida try and accept the betrothal than Elinor concedes her point and prompts her to speak against it, and while that’s certainly the right decision, we don’t see Merida adopting any of her mother’s positive beliefs and behaviours, either. The closing scenes are all of Elinor doing Merida-stuff – riding, adventuring, wearing her hair loose – but not of Merida studying to be more like Elinor, and the implication becomes, not just that femininity is inferior, but that Elinor was wholly in the wrong to begin with: the bear spell is Merida’s fault, yes, albeit by accident, but  everything up to that point is essentially put on Elinor. And for a film that’s meant to be about the mother-daughter bond, it bugged me that the ultimate conclusion was that feminine mothers ought to be more like their tomboyish daughters, with the latter being preferable to the former. Similarly, the fact that Elinor’s transformation from antagonist to ally happens at a point when she can’t talk means that we never hear her side of things, or understand what’s prompted her change of heart as she sees it: Merida gets to give a speech about everything she’s done wrong and how she’s misunderstood her mother (despite the general feeling that she’s been in the right all along), but we never hear Elinor give the rejoinder, either to make her own apology or to explain her new beliefs.

Brave, then, is not an aptly-named film in any sense of the word. The theme isn’t bravery – either martial or emotional – but empathy and love. Merida is definitely a compelling heroine, and as I’ve said, I enjoyed the film; but despite the animation, it’s ultimately more Disney than Pixar, with all the pitfalls that assessment entails.

 

*Technically, this is also true of Pocahontas and Mulan; however, both of them get properly paired up in sequel movies.

“I see that some of you are sitting with your legs crossed?” says the midwife – or asks, rather. Her inflection makes it a question. She scans the early pregnancy briefing’s female attendees – most of whom, indeed, have one knee resting on the other. A brief pause; then she smiles and shakes her head, a combination that positively radiates smug condescension. “Not when you’re pregnant,” she chides. “It could hurt your lower back.”

Just for a moment, the implied praise leaves me feeling superior: after all, I’m not sitting with my legs crossed, which surely means I win points of some sort. Then I come to my senses. I’m sitting that way by accident, not design, and anyway, I’m starting to feel suspicious of all this well-meaning but restrictive advice. Around me, the whole room rustles as twenty-odd women guiltily rearrange their limbs. We’re like children who’ve been told to sit up straight by the teacher: nobody wants to be seen as transgressive; everyone needs to look keen to learn. Yet what harm, really, could sitting with crossed legs do? Certainly, it won’t hurt our as-yet-too-premature-to-be-called-babies, and at absolute most, it’ll cause us a bit of discomfort – and admittedly, that’s a reasonable thing to want to bear in mind. But there’s a world of difference between telling us of a potential minor consequence and outright mandating that we never take the risk in the first place: the former is enlightening, while the latter is frankly censorious.

“Why take the risk?” is a phrase that crops up a lot with regard to pregnancy. Sure, there’s no proof that a glass of wine now and then could harm your baby, but why take the risk? In all probability, resting a laptop on your stomach won’t overheat your womb to the point of miscarriage, but why take the risk? It’s a question I’ve quickly learned to loathe for the pure and simple reason that it reeks of obsessive protectionism. Why risk cycling, or eating a few extra donuts when you crave them? Why risk jaywalking when you might get hit by a car? Why risk the odd cup of coffee with all the problems caffeine could cause?

Actually, though, caffeine intake can be a legitimate concern for pregnant women, as it’s been reported that a high caffeine intake can double your risk of miscarriage – but of course, that’s a meaningless statement unless you know what your risk of miscarriage actually is to begin with. And this can be an extremely difficult thing to pin down: reportedly, 30% of all pregnancies end in miscarriage – that’s one in three – but the statistic lowers to between 15% and 20% in instances where the pregnancy is confirmed. Or, to put it another way: the longer a pregnancy goes on, the lower the rate of miscarriage, meaning that the 10-15% difference can be accounted for by failed implantations – miscarriages that happen so staggeringly early in the process that the pregnancy itself was likely undetectable and which, rather than being dramatic events, are virtually indistinguishable from a woman’s normal period. That’s still a generic statistic, however – the presence of particular medical conditions or genetic histories puts some women at a higher than average risk of miscarriage, which in turn makes the overall statistic higher for everyone, regardless of their actual individual risk.

So what does that mean for your caffeine intake?

Ideally, it should imply the exercising of common sense on a case by case basis: your normal coffee intake is probably fine, but guzzling energy drinks likely isn’t (unless you’re not thrilled about being pregnant to begin with; in which case, there are myriad relevant organisations available to help) – but if you’re at a high risk of miscarriage and wanting to be super-careful, then it might be worth considering a no-caffeine policy for the duration of your pregnancy; or for the first trimester; or maybe not at all, if you’re already stressed and depressed and abstaining from a dozen other favourite things; or even if you just really, really need your morning latte. What I’m getting at is this: while it might seem more efficient in the short-term to condense all of the above into a simple, one-line bullet point about how caffeine can make you miscarry, the long-term consequence isn’t to inform pregnant women about their options, but to make us fearful of error. The devil is in the details – or in this case, the relevance. An occasional Coke won’t kill me, and I refuse to feel guilty about it.

Similarly, I’ve grown weary of being told that I can’t eat soft cheeses for fear of getting a listeriosis infection, which – yes – could cause pregnancy complications or even bring about miscarriage, but which is monumentally unlikely given how rare listeriosis actually is. It’s worth taking the time to unpack this one, given the vigour with which it’s assumed to be a true and, as a consequence, socially policed: while pregnant women are 20 times more likely to develop listeriosis than the rest of the population, the number of listeriosis cases reported for all of 2004 in the USA – including infections suffered by pregnant women, which make up 27% of all reported cases – was 753, at a rate of only 2-3 per million people. Which makes it a legitimately rare condition, even accounting for the extra vulnerability brought on by pregnancy – a vulnerability which isn’t even specific to listeriosis, by the way, but which is rather a consequence of having an overall weaker immune system, meaning that any old bacteria can cause more issues than usual. And while it’s true that listeriosis can have particularly nasty consequences for unborn babies (infected mothers aren’t at anywhere near the same risk, and in fact tend to experience only flu-like symptoms) the point is that you’d have to be spectacularly unlucky to contract it in the first place. Not a risk-taker, not irresponsible or foolhardy: unlucky. Listeriosis is a contaminant bacteria; outbreaks of it are tracked to the source, monitored, reported and contained the same way a sudden spread of E. coli would be. You’re not going to get it from a commercially well-known product.

The same sort of bad reputation applies to sushi and sashimi, too:  while common wisdom assumes that raw fish is necessarily full of undesirable elements that could hurt a growing baby, the fact is that eating fish, whether raw or cooked, is actually extremely good during pregnancy. Sure, improperly frozen sashimi might contain parasitic worms, but that’s no more risk than you’d usually be taking, and the consequences are no more dire for pregnant women than they would be otherwise – and the same goes for eating other types of raw seafood. The only possible issue is with fish that has a high mercury content, like flake and tuna, and even then, the recommendation is to limit your servings, not avoid it entirely.

And yet we’re told to avoid it all – no cheese, no salmon, no unpasteurized yogurt, no alcohol, no barbecued meats (they might be undercooked and could therefore lead to a toxoplasmosis infection, which, as with listeriosis, is both bad for the baby and exceedingly rare); my sister-in-law was even told to avoid eating salad if she hadn’t seen it prepared herself, in case the ingredients were somehow contaminated – because why take the risk? Here’s why: because I’m an actual human being, not a womb with legs, and because maybe – just maybe! – the enjoyment I derive from eating a really nice wedge of blue cheese outweighs your need to make me afraid of rare bacteria and conditions which, if cited by any other member of the population as a reason for abstaining from the vast majority of delicious foods would have you peg them instantly as a paranoid hypochondriac. Never mind that once you eliminate meat, seafood, salads and a big whack of dairy, you’re pretty much left with carbohydrates, fats and sugars – that is to say, food which is high on energy but frequently low in nutritional value, and which all and sundry will judge you for eating too much of as vehemently as they’d judge you for eating Stilton (either because you’re seen to be putting on too much weight or because they assume you’re growing a child on nothing but cake and donuts and are therefore an irresponsible, undeserving mother – I mean, is it really so hard to ask that pregnant women all look a uniform size 8 except for the perfect beachball belly on front while subsisting entirely on hummus and carrot sticks? God.).

And this is what makes me angry: that facts which have been edited to the point of fearmongering are not only passed on to pregnant women as inviolate gospel, but lent weight as such by dint of being delivered in the same breath as legitimately useful, unambiguous and instantly applicable information, such as the fact that taking folic acid supplements both prior to conception and in early pregnancy can severely reduce the likelihood of a child developing neural tube defects, or that because the pregnancy hormones relaxin and oxytocin have set about making your joints looser, it’s much easier to tear or sprain your muscles during high-impact exercise. Not every piece of data can be safely converted into a soundbite; nor should it be.

But the reality is that, in this modern, oh-so-litigous society of ours, both doctors and manufacturers alike are terrified of being sued, either for failing to adequately warn their patients about possible risks or for producing a foodstuff which, for whatever reason, might cause that unfortunate one-in-a-million person to miscarry. Last month, for instance, I was at something of a low ebb, plagued not only by first-trimester nausea and the throbbing pain of an as-yet-unremoved wisdom tooth, but a horrific phlegmy cold foisted on me by my husband, the walking disease vector. (Seriously: the man cannot travel more than ten kilometers without catching something.) Almost in tears of pain due to my sore throat, I momentarily forgot the (again, sensible but occasionally misleading) pregnancy injunction on taking any medication that isn’t paracetamol and started gulping down Honey & Lemon Strepsils. It wasn’t until the next day, by which point I’d had about eight of them, that I noticed the warning on the packet saying they weren’t for pregnant women. Utterly panicked, I rang my GP to find out what damage I’d done – only to be told that, in actual fact, there was no danger at all; that the label was essentially a precaution on the offchance a pregnant woman did one day suffer some ill-effects. A legal safeguard, not an actual warning. I hung up the phone feeling drained and cross – but even so, I stopped taking the Strepsils, just in case.

In any number of ways, pregnancy makes you more vulnerable than usual. Physically, emotionally and chemically – to say nothing of all the other offshoot stresses that spring up around the process – your body is doing strange, frequently unprecedented things, many of which can be painful or unsettling. You are anxious. You are elated.You are busy. You are exhausted, short-tempered and probably about eighty thousand other emotions, at least seventy thousand of which you’re bound to obliviously inflict on your undeserving nearest and dearest because your self-awareness mechanisms are haywire, too. You are, in other words, extremely vulnerable to fear and manipulation, particularly as regards your child-to-be: fear about their development, fear of hurting them, fear of making a mistake. And in that context, giving pregnant women abbreviated, twisted information – however much easier a summary sheet might be to produce and distribute than an in-depth analysis – will inevitably contribute to their fears; and that’s really not good, either.

So: let’s all do our best to flesh out incomplete data where and when we find it, shall we? And in the mean time, I can get back to stuffing my face with camembert and donuts.

(And for those who are curious: yes. I may be a little bit pregnant.)

In the past few weeks, mass critical discussion of a YA novel by Victoria Foyt – titled Revealing Eden: Save the Pearls – has sprung up online after various people noticed that the book was, shall we say, extremely problematic vis-a-vis racism. And by ‘extremely problematic’, I mean the white female protagonist wears blackface (complete with extra-red lips), black people are called ‘coals’, the black male love interest is literally described as animalistic and bestial, the dystopian elements come in large part from black people being in charge while whites are a demonised minority, Aztec characters speak Spanish for no readily discernable reason, and the title literally translates to ‘save the white people’ – ‘pearls’ being an (apparently) derogatory term for whites, though as various other commenters have pointed out, the coals/pearls contrast is itself offensive: after all, coal is dirty and cheap, whereas pearls are beautiful and valuable.

Things might have died down had Foyt herself not waded in, angrily denying all assertions that either the book or her attitudes were racist while simultaneously speculating that African-American readers might not even exist as a category. It was at this point that an awful possibility occurred to me: what if the Stop the GR Bullies site were to start defending Foyt on the grounds that calling her racist constituted bullying? It was a cynical thought, and one I was prepared to categorise as uncharitable even as I tweeted about the possibility on Wednesday; surely, even STGRB could recognise that in this instance, the accusations of racism were both legitimate and extremely relevant to any discussion of the novel, given Foyt’s claim that the story was meant to “turn racism on its head” – after all, how can you assess whether a book has succeeded at its stated goals without analysing the author’s efforts at achieving them? How can you discuss the presence of blatant racism in a novel without asking why the author included it, and whether they even realised it was there, let alone offensive?

But as it turns out, my cynical predictions proved accurate: this morning, STGRB has come out in defence of Foyt, asserting that:

“…calling the author racist (when she has clearly stated that she is not) or calling her ignorant, disgusting, terrible, sexist, etc., or saying that she and her agent, editor, and publisher should be sued – that is bullying.”

Which is, apart from anything else, monumentally hypocritical given that the site’s entire purpose is to label as bullies people who actively state that they aren’t. If Foyt can be deemed definitely non-racist simply by virtue of asserting that she isn’t, then how can STGRB accuse anyone of bullying who doesn’t openly identify as a bully without contradicting their own logic? Regardless of whether you agree with their judgements or practices, the primary assertion of STGRB is that sometimes it’s necessary to bestow negative labels on people who deny their applicability – but in this respect as in so many others, the site is determined to enforce a double-standard: one for them, and one for anyone who disagrees. Site manager Athena’s assertion that “someone’s intentions do define them” is fundamentally flawed: she assumes that someone with good intentions can’t cause actual harm, or that if they do, they shouldn’t be held responsible for it. I’ve written before about intentionality versus interpretation in YA, but what it all metaphorically boils down to is this: if a driver accidentally hits a pedestrian, the fact that they didn’t mean to is immaterial. The pedestrian is still injured, the driver is still negligent, and if, despite these facts, the driver continues to assert that they’re actually very good behind the wheel of a car, we are right to question them. If it really was an accident, a genuinely responsible driver will nonetheless acknowledge their error and take every precaution to ensure they never replicate it; but if it turns out that the driver has been drastically overconfident in their assessment of their abilities, their entire approach to driving needs to change.

Victoria Foyt is being called a racist because the number and severity of the problems present in Revealing Eden are such that the novel ultimately serves to reinforce the very same toxic behaviour it sets out to debunk. The assertion isn’t that Foyt is being consciously racist, in the sense of actively believing black people to be inferior, but rather that, despite her apparently good intentions, she has nonetheless subconsciously absorbed and then actively replicated certain impressions and stereotypes about black people without realising that they’re offensive – and when the extent of her cognitive dissonance was pointed out to her by myriad readers, both white and POC, she responded by asserting that their accusations were “exactly what creates racism”. She has well and truly hit the pedestrian, and has responded by declaring herself to be an excellent driver.

I’ve said before that STGRB is not a subtle site, and now more than ever, I stand by that. In many instances – perhaps even a majority of instances – reviewing the author rather than the book is a bad thing to do; but it would be both impossible and irresponsible to try and fully separate a writer from their words, particularly in instances where they’ve chosen to openly discuss their inspiration or intentions. Foyt is being critiqued as much for the tenor and content of her blogged responses to criticism as for the book itself, and however strongly you might object to references to her as a person cropping up in reviews of the latter, attempting to outlaw commentary on the former is utterly unreasonable. Authors exist in the world, not a vacuum; we are influenced by everything around us, and when that influence transfers itself to our work – whether intentionally or unintentionally – it isn’t unreasonable for critics to take notice, and to comment accordingly.

But let’s take a moment to consider what racism actually means, as both the STGRB crew and several of their commenters appear to be confused about the issue. Contrary to the stated opinions of the STGRB site owners, racism isn’t exclusively an active, conscious phenomenon – by which I mean, the terminology doesn’t only apply to people in KKK hoods who openly assert that black people are inferior. In a cultural context where discrimination is still a daily fact of life for an overwhelming number of people, but where openly stating disdain for POC is socially frowned upon, racism has become primarily a subconscious affair. But this by no means blunts its effect; in fact, it makes it even more insidious, because it breeds in people a problematic belief that hating racism is identical to not actually being racist.

When Trayvon Martin was killed, a grass roots smear campaign sprang up to defend his killer and paint the unarmed, teenage Martin as a thug; some people even started selling shooting targets printed with his face. One newscaster blamed Martin’s death on the fact that he was wearing a hoodie, saying that “black and Latino youngsters particularly” shouldn’t wear them to avoid looking suspicious. Meanwhile, George Zimmerman, Martin’s killer, defended himself using Florida’s Stand Your Ground law: his exoneration was instantly contrasted with the prominent case of a black woman, Marissa Alexander, who’d fired a gun while being physically assaulted by a violent partner. Alexander was told that Stand Your Ground didn’t apply in her case; subsequent journalistic investigation found that “defendants claiming ‘stand your ground’ are more likely to prevail if the victim is black”which prompted an investigation into racism’s influence on the law by federal and state officials. By contrast, the extrajudicial killing of black people by law enforcement in America was recently recorded to have reached the rate of one every forty hours, while just last Friday, a member of the GOP stated that members of the Republican party in Florida had actively sought to suppress black votes.

Outside the courtroom, men and women of colour still earn significantly less than their white counterparts. A white Baptist church recently refused to marry a black couple, despite both parties being regular attendees. A poll conducted in March this year showed that 29% of Republicans in Missisippi think that interracial marriage should be illegal, while a recent study of college students showed that“white students and those who rated highly in color-blind racial attitudes were more likely not to be offended by images from racially themed parties at which attendees dressed and acted as caricatures of racial stereotypes” – a result which showed a strong correlation between colour-blind attitudes and a tacit acceptance/non-recognition of racism. Similarly, implicit association tests (IATs) have frequently shown that the cultural effects of racial bias are widespread, while the shaming of and self-loathing among black girls who’ve been culturally conditioned to view their own natural hair and skin as disgusting is utterly heartbreaking. I could go on, but hopefully you get the idea: racism is everywhere, it is frequently subtle or subconscious, and its effects can be utterly devastating.

So when, to return to the case of STGRB and Victoria Foyt, I see site manager Athena responding to the suggestion that “Accusations of racism are no different than 17th. C. accusations of witchcraft” by praising the commenter’s “understanding and intelligence,” it doesn’t seem unreasonable to conclude that Foyt isn’t the only party to lack a meaningful understanding of racism. I cannot overstate this enough: calling someone out for racism is not worse than actually being racist. If you care more about being called racist than about the possibility that you actually might be racist, then you have a serious problem, because what you’ve just done, right there? Is concluded that it’s more important to appear to support equality than to actually support equality.

Distressingly, this isn’t the first time that race has become a prominent factor in discussions of YA novels. Negative fan reactions to the casting of POC actors in the respective film adaptations of two successful YA series – first to Amandla Stenberg as Rue in Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, and now to Godfrey Gao as Magnus Bane in Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments – serve to highlight how toxic the assumption of ‘whiteness as normative’ can be. Even in instances where characters are explicitly stated to be POC, as was the case in both Clare’s and Collins’s work, many readers assume otherwise – not necessarily due to conscious racism, but because they unconsciously edit out information that contradicts the culturally learned assumption that whiteness is the default setting.

Intentions are meaningless if contradicted by our actions, and doubly so if we refuse to even acknowledge the possibility of dissonance between them. Victoria Foyt is not being bullied; she is being called out for having written a horrendously racist book in the first instance and then for completely dismissing her critics in the second. Trying to turn the existing conversation about the negative themes of Revealing Eden, the reactions of POC readers, Foyt’s behaviour and the general problem of race in YA into a discussion about the appropriateness of various reviewing techniques is, ultimately, a form of derailing: however important the issue might be otherwise, it’s a separate topic to the one at hand, and the STGRB site managers have done themselves even less credit than usual by so hamfistedly conflating the two. Subconscious racism is a real problem – but so is the refusal of would-be allies to acknowledge that, despite all their active efforts and intentions, it can still affect them, too.

A poem inspired by this amazing tumblr of people reading on the subway.

underground books

.

hands more varied in colour than

the pages they turn pause,

spread into lectern-cradles for words

 .

as open-edged as breath, whose authors span

cities, countries, centuries more

varied than the scintillant plumage of birds;

 .

each face unguarded, caught engrossed

in worlds-that-are-worlds-that-are-not (that are nonetheless

temporarily more real than

 .

the darkened tunnels their carriage crossed

before this; may each voyage bless

them – eye, heart, ear & tongue) – and

 .

when they land, bookblinked & isolate

on concrete sands,

let them recede gently, like seafoam;

 .

let them be slow to close the cover; let them be late

for work; let ink & stories stain our hands

like henna, honey, loam.

Prompted by the current kerfuffle about book reviews on Goodreads, I’ve been thinking about what, for me, constitutes a good or useful review, and reached the conclusion that overall tone is vastly less important than the lucid contextualisation of arguments. By which I mean: when we react strongly to something – whether positively or negatively – that reaction is contextualised by our existing beliefs, morality, tastes and biases, none of which will necessarily be shared by anyone else, and without at least basic reference to which our reaction will not be useful or even comprehensible to others. For instance: say I have a strong aversion to sex scenes, a nonexistent interest in or knowledge of baseball, and a preference for stories which feature multiple points of view, and I unknowingly pick up a book where the characters have sex, talk constantly about their shared passion for baseball, and which has only one narrator. Clearly, the odds are stacked against my liking this book, and particularly if I’ve chosen it under the misapprehension that I’d enjoy it – say, for instance, because a well-meaning friend with an imperfect knowledge of my tastes recommended it to me – then chances are, I’m going to be disappointed. This does not, however, mean that the book itself is terrible (although it certainly might be) – just that I was entirely the wrong audience for it.

A good review, no matter how negative, will openly contextualise its biases for the reader: I don’t like sex, baseball or single narrators, and therefore disliked these aspects of this book. A mediocre review will hint at these issues, but fail to state them clearly, such that a reader could easily mistake the reviewer’s personal bugbears for objective criticism about structure and narrative flow: the sex scenes were unnecessary, all the baseball was boring and it would’ve benefited from multiple POVs. A bad review won’t make any attempt to explain itself whatsoever – instead, it will simply react: this book is terrible, and I hate everything about it. To be clear, that last remark could well appear in a good or mediocre review as part of an opening gambit or conclusion; but in those instances, the reviewer would have also tried to distinguish their own hangups from whatever else they thought was wrong with the book, so that someone who didn’t object to sex scenes or baseball and who enjoyed single narrator stories (for instance) would be able to make a reasoned judgement about whether or not to read it.

The same principle applies to positive reactions, too: a gushing review is useless if it fails to explain exactly what pleased the reviewer so much, or – just as importantly – if it doesn’t state the reviewer’s personal preferences. This is particularly relevant in instances where the presence of a beloved narrative element might cause the reviewer to ignore or overlook flaws which, were that element not present, might undermine their enjoyment. Personal taste is a balancing act, and one it pays to be aware of. For instance: I love trashy disaster movies like The Day After Tomorrow, Twister and The Core, all of which are ludicrous to varying degrees, and all of which contain noticeable plotfail of the kind which, in a different context, would have me ranting and raving the whole way home. I give disaster movies a pass because I expect them to be illogical; but if a similar species of illogic ever crops up in a fantasy film, my husband can vouch for the fact that I’ll spend a disproportionate amount of time and energy dissecting it afterwards.

The point being, a good review doesn’t just tell us about the story: it also tells us a bit about the reviewer, which lets us judge whether our tastes are roughly aligned with theirs – at least in this instance. After all, people are complex, and it’s rare for any two people’s likes and dislikes to always be in perfect alignment. A good review should function a bit like a Venn diagram, showing you the circle of the reviewer’s relevant biases so you can put your own beside it and see how much – if at all – they overlap. Which isn’t to say that a total absence of agreement is useless; all you have to do is reverse the judgement, like making a mental note that if Friend X says a particular film is terrible, then it’s probably going to be awesome. (I mean, come on. We all have this friend.)

For me, a reviewer’s tone is only important insofar as it helps me to contextualise their tastes. I tend to enjoy reviewers with an evident sense of humour, because it suggests to me that they’re not above poking fun at the things they love; and as I don’t always take things seriously, that can be as a  refreshing change from earnest adoration. Which isn’t to say that I never enjoy serious reviews – certainly, I tend to write them myself – only that I hold them to a slightly higher standard: comedic reviews can make for enjoyable reading even if their usefulness is limited, whereas straight reviews have nothing to recommend them but their usefulness, and should that be lacking, there isn’t much point to them. That being said, I’ve little patience for comedic reviews that are more concerned with abstract jokes than actually making a point. Humour might help to emphasise a good argument, but it isn’t a substitute for one, and in the case of negative reviews, it can sometimes feel like it’s being deployed purely or primarily to conceal the reviewer’s lack of relevant insight. A good review isn’t simply about your gut reaction to a book: it’s also an explanation as to why that reaction should matter to other people.

Which brings me to the subject of negative reviews in particular, and my personal approach to them. While I completely understand that some authors choose to refrain from posting negative reviews of their peers’ work, this isn’t something I feel comfortable with. The reason I review at all is to engage in conversation about a particular work, and the idea of abstaining from that simply because I tell stories as well as read them isn’t one that appeals to me. It’s important to note, however, that I’m not a big name author – quite the opposite, in fact – which means that, in the vast majority of instances, my public dislike of a book will have little to no impact on its sales, its general perception and the self esteem of the author. Should that situation ever change, I might well rethink my policy, or at least be extremely judicious about which books I review, because as much as I enjoy writing about stories, popularity (I think) comes with an inherent responsibility to use it, well… responsibly. And the thing about speaking to the mob – or fans, or readers, or any other large group people inclined to pay attention to you – is that you can’t control its reactions, or account for the comprehension of its individual members. And while that doesn’t preclude you from having opinions, it should certainly behoove you to consider what the negative consequences of voicing them might be.

But, I digress: for now, I’m a little-known author more widely recognised for her blogging than her books, which gives me comparative leeway to talk about the things I dislike without worrying that I might accidentally break someone else’s career. (Even so, while I sometimes post positive reviews on my blog, I restrict any negative ones to Goodreads, which feels like the more appropriate place to put them. To me, this is a meaningful professional distinction: unless I actively want to cheerlead for a particular author – and sometimes I do – reviews, whether good or bad, belong on the review site. Simple as that.) And when I do write reviews, I always try to think about why I’m bothering. It’s not my policy to review every single book that I read, or even a majority of them: I only do so is if there’s something about a given story, be it good or bad, that seems to invite discussion. In instances where it’s a negative thing, I try to be very certain about what, specifically, I’m objecting to. Am I morally outraged by something in the text? Does a particular character rub me the wrong way? Does either the plot or the worldbuilding have a hole in it? Is the writing style jarring, or does the author have narrative tic I find irksome? Is it a combination of factors, or just one thing in particular? It’s important to stop and ask these questions, particularly if your emotional reaction is a strong one. Don’t let the popularity of a book overly influence your critical judgement of it, either: by all means, be angry and flabbergasted that something you didn’t enjoy is selling like hot cakes, but unless you’re making a specific argument about successful trends in fiction, keep it out of the review – after all, you’re trying to asses the book itself, not pass judgement on its readers. (And if your review is less about the strengths or failings of a work than it is about mocking its fans, then I’m going to count it unhelpful, and therefore bad.)  And even if you are discussing narrative trends, blind anger at their existence is ultimately less useful than a lucid deconstruction of what they represent and why you find it problematic.

Ultimately, I think, a useful review – even a negative one – should invite conversation. If I dislike a book, I’ll strive to say so in a way that opens the issue up for discussion; which isn’t to say that I’ll always succeed, only that I find the idea of actively trying to discourage discussion incredibly problematic. Making someone feel stupid for liking something – or not liking something – isn’t an outcome that appeals to me: I’d much rather invite people with different opinions to contribute to the conversation than surround myself exclusively with like-minded people, whose agreement – while certainly flattering – does’t teach me anything. Which is also why, on occasion, I’ll actively seek out negative reviews of books I like: to see if other readers might have picked up on something problematic or interesting that I missed. I’ve had some genuine epiphanies about writing, narrative, implicit bias and tropes by doing this, and if you can bear to see something you love being criticized without wading in to defend it, I highly recommend giving it a try. But of course, it only works if the reviews you encounter are useful. They might be cheeky, snarky, serious, lighthearted, deadpan or investigative in tone, but so long as they contextualise their arguments, you could well be pleasantly surprised.

 

OK, so a deeply problematic thing just happened on Twitter.

Here’s the basic jist:

Evidently riled up by information on the Stop the GR Bullies website (which I’ve blogged about here), author James Austen took to Twitter to call blogger Kat Kennedy a loser and a retard. Not unsurprisingly, Kat and several other Twitter users, myself included, confronted Austen about his ableist language, throughout which exchange he repeatedly stated that not only had Kat called him a headcase on Goodreads, but had attacked him on a blog post where he’d revealed his own childhood sexual abuse. Kat, meanwhile, was baffled, having no idea at all who Austen was.

When asked to show evidence of the incidents in question, Austen linked first to the Stop the GR Bullies main page, and then to this Goodreads thread – neither of which show any connection whatever between himself and Kat Kennedy. It then became apparent that Austen had confused Kat with two other Goodreads users, Ridley and The Holy Terror – an extremely bizarre mistake to make, not only because even the STGRB website states clearly that these are three completely different women, but because Austen has actually been in Twitter contact with Ridley before. By this point, he’d called Kat a retard or retarded eight times by my count, including a comment where, even AFTER his error had been pointed out, he claimed to be applying the term with “laser-like precision”.

Austen then made some motions towards apology (though not for his ableist language), but also added that Kat “could win good pr now by playing this right” – meaning, presumably, that it was in her best interests not to tell people about his mistake. Now, even though we’d established that Kat wasn’t at fault, I was still concerned about Austen’s claim that someone – whoever they were – had attacked him on Goodreads for talking about his own childhood sexual abuse, because, dude, that is NOT COOL, and if someone has actually done that, they deserve to be called to account. With this in mind, I asked if he could link to that incident; he told me it had happened on one of three Goodreads blogs.

Now: possibly, this attack did take place, and for whatever reason, evidence of it has been removed from the site. But having checked the comments for every single one of Austen’s Goodreads blogposts – and further checked the comment threads attached to all the reviews/discussions about his novels – I can’t find anything which even vaguely resembles such an attack. What I can see is that in January this year, Austen blogged about his abuse, and in March, Ridley left a status update (the one linked above) mentioning that Austen had sent her an abusive private message, and that the two were arguing on Twitter. Whatever occurred in the body of that argument, I can’t find any record of it, but at this point, it does seem fairly clear that, at the very least, nobody – least of all Kat Kennedy – has attacked Austen in the comments section of his GR blogs.

As soon as this was pointed out, Austen not only quit the conversation, but locked his Twitter account. The progression of the argument as detailed below is as correct as I could manage by reconstructed it from screengrabs, though doubtless some tweets and responses are out of immediate chronological order (it being extremely difficult to follow the exact chronology of a multi-branching Twitter conversation, even after the fact). Given the length of the conversation, I’ve tried to include only relevant tweets, but for those who are interested in seeing a wider range of responses, they can be found by looking at the individual steams of the other participants, including mine. I’m aware that one tweet of Austen’s appears twice, which is unfortunate, but I couldn’t figure out how to easily remove it, and so it’s still there as a duplicate: any other errors are my fault, but hopefully don’t detract from the overall coherence (such as it is).

I’m posting this for three reasons:

  1. To establish on record that Kat Kennedy didn’t start the exchange with Austen, and has in fact never spoken to him before today;
  2. To point out that information posted on Stop the GR Bullies has directly contributed to a public instance of vile and abusive behaviour; and
  3. To stand as an example of exactly how fucked up ableism is, and why using the word retard as a pejorative is never, ever acceptable.

As for Austen: I’d ask of readers to please refrain from contacting him on Goodreads, messaging him on Twitter, or otherwise sending him negative, aggressive or abusive messages that detail his mistakes. Yes, he’s behaved appallingly, and that should definitely be noted, but further aggro isn’t going to help anyone – and if another Goodreads user really did attack him for sharing his own experiences of sexual abuse, then that needs to be brought to light and dealt with separately. Otherwise, let’s just acknowledge and learn from the fail, and move on with our lives.

Little more than a week ago, a website aimed at naming and shaming so-called Goodreads ‘bullies’ suddenly appeared online – called, appropriately enough, Stop the GR Bullies. Run by four concerned ‘readers and bloggers’ writing anonymously under the handles Athena, Peter Pan, Johnny Be Good and Stitch, the site thus far seems bent on punishing the creators of snide, snarky and negative book reviews by posting their handles, real names, locations and photos in one place, together with a warning about their supposed ‘level of toxicity’ and some (ironically) snide, snarky and negative commentary about them as people. There’s a lot here to unpack, but before I get started on why this is a horrifically bad idea, let’s start with some basic context.

As a website, Goodreads itself is something of a chimaera, being in roughly equal parts an online literary database, a social networking platform, a book review site, a promotional tool for bloggers, a promotional tool for authors, and a social forum for readers. This complexity is both its primary attraction and the single biggest source of contention among users, as the crowdsourced nature of much of the information available, in conjunction with the fact that the site itself has no in-house moderators – meaning that the majority of alleged violations of the terms of service must be manually referred to and assessed by Goodreads before they can possibly be removed – means that, to all intents and purposes, the site can and does frequently function like any large, unmoderated forum, viz: wildly. As the TOS is at pains to point out, Goodreads considers itself a third party where user content is concerned. To quote:

We are only acting as a passive conduit for your online distribution and publication of your User Content.

Of particular relevance in this case is the specific type of user content deemed inappropriate by the TOS. To quote again:

You agree not to post User Content that… (v) contains any information or content that we deem to be unlawful, harmful, abusive, racially or ethnically offensive, defamatory, infringing, invasive of personal privacy or publicity rights, harassing, humiliating to other people (publicly or otherwise), libelous, threatening, profane, or otherwise objectionable.

However, it’s also relevant to note the following caveats (emphasis mine) – namely, that:

Goodreads reserves the right, but is not obligated, to reject and/or remove any User Content that Goodreads believes, in its sole discretion, violates these provisions… 

You understand and acknowledge that you may be exposed to User Content that is inaccurate, offensive, indecent, or objectionable, and you agree that Goodreads shall not be liable for any damages you allege to incur as a result of such User Content. Goodreads may provide tools for you to remove some User Content, but does not guarantee that all or any User Content will be removable.

In other words: even if you can argue compellingly that another member has violated the TOS with regards to user content, Goodreads is under no obligation to agree, to listen, or in fact do anything at all: their commitment is to passive third party provision of a useful service, not to the active moderation of user content, and while that’s certainly their legal right, in practical terms, it means that the onus for modding conversational threads, forums, reviews and everything else rests squarely with the user in question. To quote again:

You are solely responsible for your interactions with other Goodreads Users. We reserve the right, but have no obligation, to monitor disputes between you and other Users. Goodreads shall have no liability for your interactions with other Users, or for any User’s action or inaction.

In keeping with the universally applicable logic of John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, every online community of sufficient size will inevitably attract trolls, harassment, bullying and all manner of accordant awfulness, with the level of active moderation being literally the only bulwark against anarchy. Not being a regular participant in Goodreads threads or forums – though I am an active user of the site as an author, reviewer and reader – I’m not in a position to comment on how often Goodreads actually steps in to ban abusive members, remove problematic comments or otherwise moderate user content either on demand or of their own volition: all I can note is that legally, they have no obligation to take any action at all. Clearly, though, a number of users feel that the lack of in-house moderation has lead to the creation of a negative, if not actively toxic, environment in some quarters, with the result that some members have now taken it upon themselves to lead a public campaign against those they deem to be the worst offenders.

One more piece of context, before we continue: both within Goodreads itself and throughout the wider book blogging community, the ongoing debate about niceness vs. snark in reviews is intensely relevant to the problem at hand. While the argument itself has many facets – should aspiring writers post negative reviews, or strive to embrace a ‘be nice’ attitude? are authors, editors, agents and publishers within their grounds to reject aspiring writers who’ve written negative reviews of authors they work with or know, or is this a form of discriminatory nepotism? is the primary purpose of book blogging to act as ‘cheerleaders’ for authors, or to give good consumer advice to readers? – what it frequently boils down to is a dispute over judgements of taste. Or, more specifically: at what volume or intensity does the presence of comedic snark in a book review see it go from being a professional opinion to unprofessional abuse?

It’s very much a your mileage may vary question, which is, I suspect, why Goodreads has the policy of passive non-interference that it does. By definition, not everyone is going to agree with a book review, and given that the utility of their service is predicated on people who love (or hate) books being free to discuss them, they’re naturally going to be loathe to police the tone of such conversations too heavily for fear of undermining their own purpose. However, it’s also important to note that, due to the Goodreads site layout, the usual handy metaphors for personal vs public pages – an intensely relevant distinction when it comes to questions of harassment, as it has the effect of dictating which party is the guest/invader, and which the host/native – don’t precisely apply. For instance: on a traditional internet forum, threads are analogous to public spaces, with the default authority resting either exclusively with the in-house moderators or creator/s, or jointly between the two. Abuse is, as elsewhere, defined as either vituperative ad hominem attacks or generic -ism-based slander; however, due to the clear distinction between attacking someone in a public thread and attacking them outside the context of the discussion – which is to say, on their user page, via email or, in instances where it’s not in direct response to something they’ve posted there, on their personal site – we don’t generally upgrade the abuse to bullying or harassment unless it makes that transition. To be clear: this doesn’t excuse abusive behaviour. Nonetheless, there is a relevant and meaningful distinction between saying, ‘I think Author X is a shit writer’ on a public thread, and going to their personal page to say, ‘I think you’re a shit writer’. On Goodreads, however, this distinction is blurred, because while reviews and their attendant conversational threads fall under the governance of the user-reviewer, they’re also attached to the relevant book and its author-governed page; meaning, in essence, that there’s an overlap between the author’s personal space (assuming the author in question is a member of the site) and the reviewer’s.

And, not surprisingly, this can cause major friction, not just between authors and negative reviewers, but between fans of authors and negative reviewers. In some instances, it’s analogous to carrying on a bitchy conversation within earshot of the person you’re talking about, with the added rider that, as this is also a professional space for the author, they’re not allowed to retaliate – or at least, they can do so, but regardless of the provocation, they’ll come off looking the worse. Which leads to fans – and, sometimes, friends – of authors leaping to their defense, often with disastrous results, and sometimes using language that’s on par with anything they’re actually objecting to.

But here’s the thing: any public figure, regardless of whether they’re an author, actor, sportsperson or journalist, must resign themselves to a certain amount of public criticism. Not everyone will like you, your work or even necessarily your profession, and nor will they be under any obligation to protect your sensibilities by being coy about it. A negative review might mean you lose sales, but that’s not a gross unfairness for which the reviewer should be punished, no matter how snarky they are: it is, rather, a legitimate reflection of the fact that, in their personal and professional estimation as a consumer of your work, they don’t believe that other people should buy it. And yes, you’re allowed to feel sad about that, but it’s still going to happen; it’s still going to be legal and normal. At times, your personal and public lives will blur, or else specific criticism will invite others to consider the relationship between your output and your private beliefs – and this will sometimes be relevant to discussions of your work and its themes, as per the fact that Stephanie Meyers’s Mormonism is relevant to the morality used in Twilight (for instance). Sometimes you’ll even be called names or find yourself on the receiving end of ad hominem attacks, where people say you’re a stupid, talentless hack as part of their review, and call into question both your morality and your convictions. And depending on the relevance of those accusations to your work and the problems the reviewer has with it, that can achieve anything from laying bare a deep-seated flaw in your worldview to highlighting nothing so much as the reviewer’s petty, vindictive ignorance.

But it isn’t bullying.

Because bullying is not a synonym for argument, disagreement or pejorative reactions. Bullying is not a synonym for disliking someone, or for thinking their work is rubbish. Bullying is not even a synonym for saying so, publicly and repeatedly, in a place where that person can hear it – although that’s certainly unpleasant. Bullying is when someone with a greater position of power and/or possessed of greater strength repeatedly and purposefully attacks, harasses, belittles and/or otherwise undermines someone in a position of lesser power and/or possessed of lesser strength. In the vast majority of circumstances, bullying trickles down; it does not travel up, and in instances where the author in question is a super-successful megastar, to say they’re being bullied by reviewers is to ignore the fundamental power-dynamics of bullying. Even on the Goodreads system, where authors can see exactly what readers and reviewers think of them, expressing a negative opinion is not the same as bullying, because although the conversation is visible, it’s not directed at the author; they are under no obligation to respond, or even to read it at all. Feeling sad and overwhelmed because people don’t like your book and have said so publicly might constitute a bad day, but it’s not the same as being bullied.

Cyberbullying among teenagers is a real and serious problem characterised by the sending of abusive messages by either single or multiple parties, the spreading of hurtful lies and rumours, the public display of information or images that were intended as private, and the confluence of systematic abuse both in the real world and online. Such attacks are vicious, personal, and often constitute criminal offenses; many have lead to suicide. What recently happened to Anita Sarkeesian was bullying of exactly this kind, where a number of individuals unknown to her engaged in an active attempt to publicly frighten, abuse and slander her – a situation which is demonstrably not the same as some snarky, unpaid reviewers slagging off a book. Similarly, when people leave vile, sexist comments on my blog, that’s not bullying: it’s offensive and abusive, yes, but all the power in the situation belongs to me, because I can delete the comments, ban the commenters, and publicly mock them for their opinions – and just as importantly, my posts are there because I want people to read and react to them. The fact that I’ve invited comment doesn’t mean abusive responses are justified, but it does mean I’m not being attacked or contacted in a vacuum: I have said a thing, and people are responding to it. That is not bullying. Obviously, it’s not impossible for authors to be bullied. An indie or self-published author without the support of an agency/publisher and their attendant legal teams, for instance – or, just as importantly, without hundreds of thousands of supportive fans – could easily be bullied by any sufficiently cruel individual who took it upon themselves to send regular hateful email, spam their site with negative criticism, leave abusive remarks on their personal profiles, and otherwise behave like a grade-A douche. But that’s not what we’re talking about here, because as far as I can make out, everything the Stop the GR Bullies crew objects to has happened either in a review, as part of a public comment thread, in response to a blog post, or in the course of personal conversations on Twitter.

Because – and I cannot stress this enough – simply disliking a book, no matter how publicly or how snarkily, is not the same as bullying. To say that getting a handful of mean reviews is even in the same ballpark as dealing with an ongoing campaign of personal abuse is insulting to everyone involved. If Athena and the Stop the GR Bullies mob had chosen any other word to describe the problem – if they’d stopped at calling it toxic and objected to it on those grounds – then I might be more sympathetic; after all, as stated above, Goodreads is a largely unmoderated site, and that doesn’t always lead to hugs and puppies. But conflating criticism with bullying is a serious problem – not just in this context, but as regards wider issues of social justice. Increasingly, ‘bullying’ is being bastardised into a go-to term to describe the actions of anyone who actively disagrees with you, to the point where some conservative politicians are now describing leftwingers who call them out on sexism and racism as bullies, or else have decided that ‘bully’ is just a meaningless epithet like ‘racist’ and ‘sexist’, which is arguably worse for suggesting that all three concepts are somehow mythical.

Which is why, in short, the Stop the GR Bullies website is an appalling idea on just about every level. Not only does it appropriate some actual bullying tactics – such as attempting to disseminate the real names and locations of its targets to strangers, then implicitly encouraging said strangers to engage in further harassment – while serving to further water down and confuse the actual, meaningful definition of bulling, but as a protest against the perceived abuse of the Goodreads TOS, it’s completely and utterly meaningless, because the whole site constitutes an active violation. Yes, you did read that right – because to quote again from the TOS (emphasis mine):

You agree not to engage in any of the following prohibited activities… (viii) using any information obtained from the Service in order to harass, abuse, or harm another person, or in order to contact, advertise to, solicit, or sell to any Member without their prior explicit consent.

And does Stop the GR Bullies use harassment as a tool? Oh, worse than that: some of what they say is actually libelous. Here’s a screengrab of their description of Kat Kennedy, a GR member and book blogger for Cuddlebuggery:

The inability of the poster, Athena, to distinguish between a reviewer speaking negatively about books in a professional capacity and the outright public slander of a private citizen by another private citizen is breathtaking, to say nothing of the fact that making a hate page is pretty much 101-grade material for how to be an internet bully. The rest of the site is in much the same vein, and where at least the original posters, whatever you think of them, have the excuse of (a) being in personal conversation with friends or (b) acting as reviewers, the site does not: its sole effect, despite its intended purpose, is to be vituperative in terms of language and downright sinister in its commitment to Googlestalking its targets, attempting to put up not only their names and photos, but details of their places of employment and personal circumstances.

I’m never gladdened to hear that some author or other has decided to quit Goodreads because of negative comments, reviews or any other reason. But Goodreads itself is an optional part of the author ecosystem – as, for that matter, is blogging, Tweeting, and every other type of social media. While Goodreads, as far as I know, lacks privacy controls (which is likely another contributing factor to the problem at hand: authors can’t opt out of seeing negative reviews or comments, while reviewers lack the ability to make the comment threads attached to their reviews private, both of which, if introduced as options, might go a long way towards easing the current tensions) other forms of social media do not. A blogger, for instance, has total control over whether or not to allow commenting on particular posts, while Twitter uses can lock their accounts so that only approved individuals can follow them. Anyone fearful of negative comments has the power to screen them out – and if, on the other hand, a reviewer or author blogs publicly with the intention of receiving responses, that doesn’t preclude them from encountering legitimately negative reactions. If someone writes a blog post and asks for comment, it’s not bullying to respond with strong disagreement: in the scientific world, that’s simply known as having an opinion. Similarly, if a comment makes you uncomfortable on your own blog, mod or ban away! It’s why the option exists. But don’t call it bullying when people show up and disagree with you – even if they’ve disagreed with you before – because that’s not what bullying means.

And as for the people who’ve created the website in question: you might want to stop and think about what you’re doing. As much as anyone you’ve taken issue with, you’re in violation of the Goodreads TOS, and hiding behind anonymity while attempting to strip it from others is a hypocrisy that seldom plays well on the internet. If you really want to change the culture at Goodreads, you’d be better off lobbying for the promotion of in-house or site-approved moderators, closed comment threads and a greater delineation of author and reviewer pages rather than engaging in essentially the same behaviour that’s got you so worked up in the first place. This whole situation may well get uglier before it gets better, and under the circumstances, it doesn’t seem like anyone is going to want to play nice.