Archive for January, 2013

Being as how I’m almost nine months pregnant with my first child, whom I intend to breastfeed, this is not an impersonal topic for me. Though it’s something I’ve felt strongly about for many years, the issue has now gone from being purely academic to immediately personal – which makes it something I’d like to address in depth.

So, to begin with: breast milk is undeniably awesome for babies. It really is the best thing for them, and as such, an enormous amount of pressure is placed on mothers to breastfeed their children for as long as possible (provided it’s not¬†too¬†long, according to the prevailing cultural mores, as Westerners tend to get freaked out by the idea of toddlers and older kids still feeding from mum, despite the fact that this is¬†by no means a universal hangup). At the antenatal classes I attended, for instance, the midwife told us that our bodies were¬†designed to breastfeed, and that very few women failed to produce any milk at all – the clear implication being that, if we found ourselves struggling, it was likely because we were doing it wrong, and not because, as¬†a recent article¬†so eloquently pointed out, our bodies are meant to do lots of things they sometimes simply can’t, like produce insulin or digest lactose.¬†

What this means is that, despite the many benefits of breastfeeding to both mother and baby, there are myriad circumstances under which it’s either difficult or impossible. For instance: newborns have to be fed every two hours, and can spend up to an hour feeding at any one time – a demanding schedule which, apart from playing merry hob with your sleeping patterns, will likely prove insupportable if you return to work soon after giving birth, if your child wants to ingest more per feeding session than your body can readily produce, ¬†if your nipples are a difficult size or shape for suckling, or if the act of breastfeeding is physically painful.

Similarly, it’s often harder for women who’ve had a C-section to breastfeed afterwards; ditto for anyone suffering from post natal depression, anyone whose child was born prematurely, and anyone lucky-slash-overwhelmed enough to have ended up with a multiple pregnancy. Mothers who take antidepressants or other strong medication that can be passed through breastmilk will either have to abstain or feed only on a very rigid schedule, while anyone¬†endeavoring¬†to cope with transmissable diseases or ongoing substance abuse problems will be likewise restricted. And then, of course, there’s the parents for whom breastfeeding simply isn’t an option: transmen or women without the necessary breast tissue, women who’ve had mastectomies, adoptive parents, gay male couples, parents whose babies can’t latch on, and that apparently rare subset of women whose milk simply never comes in. Add to all this the number of mothers who, for reasons of practicality or personal preference, choose to pump from the outset or go straight to formula, and you have a sizeable number of babies who’ll never be breastfed at all.

And you know what?¬†That’s OK.¬†Because as awesome as breastmilk is, and as lovely as it would be if everyone who wanted to breastfeed was able to do so easily and painlessly, life is far more complex than that, and regardless of the benefits of breastfeeding for babies, feeding them formula either partially or exclusively isn’t the end of the world. Pregnancy, birth and parenting are all monumentally difficult, and given the inaliable fact that no two children, let alone their families, are identical, the idea of¬†tut-tutting¬†people who don’t breastfeed as though from a position of unassailable moral highground is utterly unhelpful.

I say all this as a preface because, far too often, pro-breastfeeding arguments have an ugly tendency to devolve into zealous, moralistic displays of finger-waving, not only at those who object to public breastfeeding, but to any mother who dares not to breastfeed at all. And from the bottom of my heart, I want to say: that is bullshit. Breastmilk is awesome for babies, but whatever the scaremongers say, the vast majority of parents are just trying to get by and do their best, usually while sleep-deprived and covered in a thin rime of vomit, week-old cornflakes, talcum powder and crayon. Neither your willingness nor your ability to breastfeed is a magical measure of how good a parent you are, period, and anyone who tries to guilt-trip you to the contrary is probably not a person you should be listening to.

So, with all that out of the way:

I am 100% in favour of public breastfeeding Рnot just because of the health factor for both mother and baby, and not just because breastfeeding of any stripe is difficult enough to merit constant support and encouragement, but because there is absolutely nothing offensive about it. Which is, for me, the key point, because overwhelmingly, objections to public breastfeeding have everything to do with the potential discomfort of onlookers and nothing to do with what it actually is.

I have, for instance, seen public breastfeeding compared to spitting ¬†or urinating in the street – as though it’s a disgusting bodily function that ought to be kept out of sight, out of mind. Which is, frankly, ludicrous: firstly, because milk, unlike blood, spit, shit or piss, is not a bodily waste product; and secondly, because it’s being delivered¬†into a hungry child, and not spilled wantonly onto the street. Perhaps more importantly, though, the comparison implies that parents either must or should have a level of predictive control over their children that’s simply impossible: an adult who takes a sly piss in an alley is transgressing, not only by dint of polluting the street, but by failing to do the sensible thing and find an actual toilet, whereas it’s utterly unreasonable to expect a mother to predict, with perfect accuracy, when her child will next require feeding, to say nothing of the fact that – as is highlighted by the nature of the debate – she doesn’t have the option of simply finding the nearest public facility built expressly for her needs. (And lest you suggest that toilets, too, are suitable for the purpose: see above re, how long individual feeds can take, which necessitates, at the very least, a place where you can sit for a minimum of fifteen or twenty minutes uninterrupted and in comfort – which is to say,¬†not a public toilet.)

Then there’s the decorum objection: that women should¬†of course¬†be able to breastfeed in public, provided they do it discreetly, or¬†classily, or sensitively, or whatever other word best suits the sensibilities of the observer without recourse to the practical wants and needs of the subject. This argument, while comparatively benign, tends to imbue breastfeeding with an aesthetic imperative above and beyond its actual function – as though the necessity of transmitting milk to a hungry infant somehow magically vanishes if you can’t live up to the sartorial expectations of your hypothetical,¬†voyeuristic,¬†judgmental¬†audience. Carried to its logical conclusion, then, what begins as an offhand plea to ‘just do it nicely’ ends up carrying the implicit rider of ‘or else, don’t’ – an attitude which privileges the moral and/or aesthetic sensibilities of a single disgruntled observer over not only the bodily needs of a child, but also over the ambivalence or approval of every other bystander who rightly deems the spectacle (such as it is) to be none of their business. More practically, and in response to the specific assertion that mums should just be able to cover both breast and child with a handy length of fabric: children squirm, getting a baby comfortably attached to a nipple requires line of sight, and it’s sort of difficult to tell when they need to detach and burp – let alone support their necks and bodies – if you’re simultaneously grappling with a wisp of obscuring linen. So, no: it’s certainly an option, but it’s far from being a panacea, and expecting all mums to adopt it for the sake of a stranger’s sensibilities is wholly unreasonable.

Well, so what about the assertion that breasts don’t belong in public? Surely that has some merit, at least? Only, no, it doesn’t, because as a society, we¬†love¬†boobies.¬†Images of them are everywhere¬†– often portraying more bare skin than actual breastfeeding would necessitate –¬†and whatever moralising some people might get up to about the¬†depredations¬†of bikinis, crop tops, boob tubes and any other form of cleavage-accentuating dress, the idea that they shouldn’t be allowed in public is risible. Because realistically, the objection here isn’t to breasts, per se, but¬†rather¬†to nipples; or, more specifically, to the prospect that a woman might flash one in the seconds before her child latches on and suckles.¬†Which is where I return to the waste products argument; because more than once, I’ve seen it suggested that being able to breastfeed publicly is a nefarious form of female privilege – that somehow, the inability of men to urinate outside (or rather, the illegality of their doing so, as it certainly happens) means that¬†permissible¬†public breastfeeding would be fundamentally unfair, as allowing women to evacuate milk while preventing men from evacuating urine is… an imbalance, somehow? Look: it’s a stupid argument – as I’ve already said, expelling waste into the street is hardly equivalent to expressing milk into a mouth – but for those who want to play the Double Standards card: how fair is it, really, that men can go around topless for the fun of it, while women can’t show so much as a glimpse of nipple while feeding a baby? Is that not a greater and far more gendered imbalance?

Which leads us into the biggest argument against public breastfeeding, and the most frustrating: female sexualisation. Because¬†obviously, lady-boobs are different to man-pecs in that the former can provoke arousal in men, whereas the latter are supposed to be sex-neutral, and therefore exempt from the same rules of cover-uperage. Some men even find breastfeeding itself arousing, lending a pornographic sheen to the public act, and seriously, I cannot even finish this sentence, because you know what? That is¬†your fucking problem,¬†hypothetical observer!¬†I mean, do you know how many men find school uniforms arousing, or nurses’ uniforms, or nuns’ habits, or any other specific form of dress/behaviour/activity you’d care to name? Are you honestly suggesting that, because Person A finds Person B to be sexually appealing in Context C, then Context C ought to be publicly prohibited on the offchance that Person A is present when it happens? Are you seriously contending that a hypothetical¬†voyeur¬†has more of right to abstain from self-control – and, subsequently, to complain about unanticipated arousal – than the subject of their voyeurism does to simply exist in the world without an enforced awareness of the sexual peccadilloes of strangers?

Because, here’s the thing: if you sexualise, feel attracted to or are otherwise aroused by someone? That does not mean they are obligated to care, to reciprocate, or even take steps to make themselves less appealing to you. To paraphrase Elizabeth Bennet’s famous reproach of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, they have every right¬†to act in a manner which will, in their own opinion, constitute their happiness, without reference to you or any other person so wholly unconnected with them.¬†So by all means, be aroused: just don’t expect it to matter to anyone other than yourself, and least of all to strangers.¬†

Beyond all these objections, however, the debate about public breastfeeding invariably ties into the current angry panic about the presence of parents and small children in public spaces – cafes, planes, theaters, pubs – and the extent to which some areas should be designated child-free zones. And while that’s whole other argument in many respects, I can’t quite shake the suspicion that at least part of the pushback against public breastfeeding can be attributed to the widespread belief that any form of parental exceptionalism is wrong: that, as having a child is neither an outward expression of moral superiority nor a public service, expecting any special treatment or concessions on behalf of said child is nothing more than baseless, greedy entitlement. Parenthood (this argument goes) should more rightly be equated with self-sacrifice, and if that means abstaining from adult pleasures while chaperoning your young’uns, then so be it.

And, look: without wanting to come down irrevocably on one side or the other – this being the sort of issue I’m much more inclined to deal with on a case by case basis – the thing that always bugs me about this attitude is the implied belief that certain public spaces rightly and innately belong to the childless, such that entering them with children is, by itself, a species of invasion. And while there are certainly some specific instances wherein that holds true, in general, public spaces are so named¬†because they belong to the public¬†– which means that it’s just as reasonable for a childless person to expect the parents at table three to shut their toddler up as it is for the parents to expect tolerance from the childless person. It’s all give and take, is what I’m saying, and while I’ll be the first to admit to having eyerolled at a clambering, chattering preschooler in a busy cafe, I also dislike the assumption that parents are alone in feeling unreasonably entitled to the use of public spaces, when clearly, the desire to police their usage is itself a symptom of entitlement. So when it comes to kneejerk reactions to public breastfeeding – or, for that matter, kneejerk reactions to the concerns of childless persons – we could all do much worse than to think about who really owns the space we’re in (if anyone), and why it is we so often assume our own priorities are universally the most important.

Because at the end of the day, while having children is certainly a choice, our insistence on categorising the decision as a mere affectation of lifestyle – as though, if parenthood were to suddenly drop out of vogue like 70s decor or the poodle perm, we’d all just move on to shoulder pads and rollerblading instead – is a blinkered refusal to acknowledge its necessity. It might be an ugly, dirty job as far as some are concerned; but like rubbish collection and sewage maintenance, we still need someone to do it. Allowing for the inevitable, ongoing presence of children in public – and, as a consequence, admitting that their best interests must are also the best interests of society – doesn’t mean you have to worship at the altar of parenthood. Rather, it’s simply an acknowledgement that public spaces are shared spaces, and that sometimes, our personal comfort levels are going to be transgressed or trumped by the rights and needs of others. Public breastfeeding might seem like a comparatively small issue, but it’s one that matters – and one which I wholeheartedly endorse.

Note: this post was originally written in response to a question on tumblr.

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Yesterday, a woman by the name of Gabrielle Toledano – evidently a human resources manager for EA games – wrote a rather confusing and deeply problematic op-ed for Forbes¬†outlining why, in her estimation, sexism isn’t responsible for the dearth of women in gaming. To quote her opening remarks:

¬†It‚Äôs easy to blame men for not creating an attractive work environment ‚Äď but I think that‚Äôs a cop-out.¬† If we want more women to work in games, we have to recognize that the problem isn‚Äôt sexism.

…The issue I have is that the video game industry is being painted as more sexist than other male-dominated workforces.¬† I know sexism exists, but the issue isn‚Äôt just in video games.¬† And it‚Äôs not what‚Äôs holding us back.

Nonetheless, there are still too few women working in my company, so it‚Äôs clear there is an issue to fix. Rather than blame the majority just because they are the majority, I believe the solution starts with us ‚Äď women.

Which is, frankly, one of the most flippant, useless and blithely ignorant summaries of the problem I’ve ever had the misfortune to encounter. For one thing, Toledano manages to contradict herself magnificently within the space of three paragraphs: because surely if sexism exists in gaming – which, as she plainly admits, it does – then it must constitute at least a part of the reason why women are so conspicuously absent. Instead of conceding this point even slightly, however, she dismisses it out of hand, and for no better reason than her dislike of the implication that gaming might be more sexist than other industries. This, at least, is a reasonable point: game developers are hardly alone when it comes to dealing with sexism, which problem is self-evidently one that affects the whole of society to varying degrees. But to say – and worse, to say casually – that such sexism as does exist in gaming must necessarily be either benign or irrelevant simply because it exists more prominently elsewhere, or because the extent of the problem is popularly overstated, is as irresponsible as it is inaccurate. This blithe attempt to handwave a serious problem is further compounded by Toledano’s assertion that sexism effectively constitutes “blaming the majority just because they are the majority”, a sentence nobody could write without having first elected to ignore the glaringly obvious: that the majority isn’t being blamed for being the majority, but for maintaining a culture of prejudicial dominance,¬†whether due to ignorance, malice, laziness or a combination of all three. To summarise Toledano’s argument, then: sexism exists in gaming, but doesn’t impact negatively on women, because criticism of the majority is really only resentment of their status as the majority, and therefore disconnected from any rational complaint about their actions.

Right.

What, then, does Toledano see as the root cause of female under-representation in gaming? Her argument comes as a triptych: firstly, that female gamers have failed to identify themselves as such (which is both ludicrous and insulting); secondly, that the industry wants to hire more women (though how this admission constitutes a reason for their absence is anyone’s guess); and thirdly, that there aren’t enough women to hire (which is a partial explanation for her second point, but which nonetheless doesn’t explain why there are fewer female STEM graduates to begin with, which point she glosses over with a simple call for their being more widely encouraged).

Her closing remarks only serve to cement her total misunderstanding of the problem:

If women don‚Äôt join this industry because they believe sexism will limit them, they‚Äôre missing out.¬† The sky is the limit when it comes to career opportunities for women (and men) in games. If we want the tide to turn and the ratio of men to women to really change then we need to start making women realize that fact…

Sexism is an unfortunate reality of our times, but as women we must seek the power and ability in ourselves to change the dynamic.  Cast aside the preconceptions, and look for the opportunities and places to make an impact.  And I can tell you firsthand that in the video game industry women are not just welcome, we are necessary and we are equal.

From beginning to end, the piece reads as an oversimplified, insipidly cheerful and woefully pat exhortation for women to simply wade on in – you’ve only yourselves to blame if you don’t! Sexism exists, but you can overcome it with gumption and elbow grease! Follow your hearts, my darlings! Follow your star! Never mind that Toledano offers not one single fact in support of her claim that sexism isn’t so much as a tiny part of the problem despite acknowledging its existence, nor cites any specific policy, testimony or other useful data that might bolster her argument. Neither does she respond to the wealth of evidence and arguments which directly contradict it, despite linking to an article which lays out a detailed opposing case; instead, she leaves it totally unaddressed. Add these deficiencies to the self-contradictory and wholly unsupported nature of her assertions, and it’s hard not to wonder if her belief in the benevolent non-existence/unimportance of sexism as a factor stems entirely from not having experienced it herself, or from believing such sexism as she has experienced to have had no detrimental effect on either her wellbeing or career. That, of course, is only conjecture on my part; but if untrue, the only viable alternative would seem to be that, having suffered sexism in the past but subsequently overcome it, Toledano has elected to use her own success as a yardstick against which to gauge the determination and worthiness of every other woman in her industry, which is hardly reasonable. Whatever the case, the implication is equally unsatisfying: that as sexism hasn’t impeded¬†her, it must therefore be incapable of impeding anyone else.

Allow me, then, to provide the evidence that Toledano does not. In November last year, under the Twitter hashtag #1reasonwhy, women employed in gaming¬†collectively shared the myriad instances of sexism they experienced at work¬†in order to highlight the extent of the problem, with multiple accompanying conversations about problems in the industry following soon after. Around the same time, a Penny Arcade report based on actual data showed how the dearth of games starring female protagonists has become a self-fulfilling prophecy: such games, it was found, were given smaller budgets by publishers and marketed far less extensively than their male-lead counterparts, leading to critical neglect and low sales, and therefore contributing to the outdated notion that women don’t play games, and as such aren’t a viable demographic. There’s any number of prominent accounts of women in gaming being dismissed or discriminated against on the basis of gender; this Christmas, headlines were made by the presence of¬†topless women at Gameloft’s holiday party; and though they point more to problems in the culture of game consumption than creation, it would be foolish to view either the infamous Aris Bakhtanians incident or the experiences of Anita Sarkeesian as irrelevant. As for the comparative absence of women in STEM fields, this is hardly a problem without a cause: brogrammer culture, entrenched academic gender bias¬†and¬†subconscious bias in hiring practices, to name just three of the major issues, all affect female participation.

Because what Toledano fails to comprehend is that gaming, like everything else, is an ecosystem – and right now, at every single level of participation, women are feeling the effects of sexism. Female gamers are sexualised, demeaned and assumed to be fakes by their male counterparts; those who go into STEM fields despite this abuse frequently find themselves stifled by the sexist assumptions of professors and fellow students alike; they must then enter an industry whose creative output is overwhelmingly populated with hypersexualised depictions of women and male-dominant narratives, and where the entrenched popularity of these tropes means their own efforts to counteract the prevailing culture will likely put them at odds with not only their colleagues, but also the business models of the companies and projects for which they work; as the #1reasonwhy discussion showed, many will experience sexism in the workplace – hardly surprising, given the academic correlation between the¬†acceptance of misogyny in humour and culture¬†and real-world tolerance for sexism and rape culture – while others will be excluded from it completely. All this being so, therefore, if a single progressive HR manager at a comparatively progressive company looks around and finds, despite her very best intentions that, there are few or no women to hire for a particular position, then the problem is not with women for failing to take advantage of a single company’s benevolent practices, but with the industry as a whole for failing to create a culture in which women are welcome, and where they might therefore be reasonably expected to abound.

In her excellent book¬†Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine documents a phenomenon whereby some progressive parents, determined to counteract the sexist influences of prevailing culture, found themselves adopting a ‘biology as fallback’ position when, despite their best efforts at promoting equality, their children still conformed to gender norms. “Believing that they practiced gender-neutral parenting,” Fine writes, “biology was the only remaining explanation.” But as she goes on to point out, the actual explanation is far more complex: not only were such parents still prone to promoting unconsciously absorbed gender roles, but when ranged against the ubiquitous sexism promoted by wider culture, even their best efforts were overwhelmed in the child’s experience – no matter how many pink clothes and dolls a son was bought, if the majority of his peers were playing with trucks and dressing in blue, and if every presentation of normalcy he absorbed through stories, clothing, culture, advertising and other children suggested he should do likewise, then his experiences at home would still read as anomalous. Unable to accept this, however, parents persisted in blaming biology: their failure could only have been predestined, and not the result of wider social and cultural factors beyond their individual control, let alone indicative of a flaw in their methods.

Toledano, it seems to me, is committing a similar fallacy, adopting a fallback belief in female disinterest in order to explain the lack of women in gaming, and thereby discounting the impact of more pervasive and difficult issues, never mind her use of faulty logic. And the thing is, it matters: not just because of her status as a representative of a major gaming company writing in a prominent publication, and not just because it betrays exactly the sort of misunderstanding of sexism that inevitably helps it perpetuate itself; but because she’s created a cop-out piece for sexists and those who doubt their influence to wave about as definitive proof that really, the problem is women themselves – and, more specifically, feminist women, or women who demand change. By claiming to speak definitively on the matter – unveiling the “dirty little secrets” of women in gaming, to use her phrase, as though she’s boldly daring the wrath of some secret feminist conspiracy in order to say openly what sensible women have always known in private, but been too scared to admit in public ¬†– Toledano is using the supposed authority of her gender to claim, on the basis of not a single shred of evidence, that sexism isn’t an obstacle, because look! Here she is, a woman, admitting as much! And if a woman says it, it must be true! Which is, presumably, why she’s felt no need to sully her case by supporting it with facts; because surely, the act of merely presenting it must be evidence enough. Only, no, that’s not how it works. To modify a Biblical phrase, the greatest trick the patriarchy ever pulled was convincing women it didn’t exist – and in Toledano’s case, all too lamentably, it seems to have succeeded.

Warning: All The Spoilers, much rant.

Far back in the mists of time – which is to say, in April 2011 – I reviewed Zack Snyder’s¬†Sucker Punch, a deeply problematic film which, despite its apparently noble intentions, succeeded only in replicating and reinforcing the selfsame sexist, exploitative tropes it ostensibly meant to subvert. Similarly, in August last year, I weighed in on the controversy surrounding Victoria Foyt’s¬†Save the Pearls: Revealing Eden, a self-published YA novel whose deeply problematic use of racist language and imagery overwhelmingly outweighed its stated goal of “turn[ing] racism on its head”, a dissonance which was further compounded by Foyt’s equally problematic responses to her critics. And now, by way of kicking off 2013, I’m going to review Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, ¬†a novel which, while certainly not as egregious in its awfulness as either Foyt or Snyder’s work, fails in a conspicuously similar manner, viz: by unconsciously perpetuating exactly the sort of objectionable bullshit it was (one assumes) intended to critique.

In a nutshell, then: The Magicians is the story of Quentin Coldwater, a privileged, clever yet disaffected youth with a deep-seated sense of entitlement and a private longing for the magical, fictional world of Fillory, a wholly unsubtle Narnia substitute. Aged seventeen, Quentin is diverted away from Princeton and selected instead to learn real magic at the exclusive Brakebills College, aka Hogwarts For Assholes, where he spends five years being oblivious and dissolute while becoming progressively more awful, and very occasionally encountering things that are relevant at the finale. After graduating, he and his equally unlikable friends live a pointless, overindulgent life in Manhattan  until a former classmate shows up with the news that Fillory is real; on travelling there, the young magicians  encounter a terrible enemy whose defeat is only achieved at the expense of one of their lives. Horribly wounded, Quentin is left to recuperate in Fillory while his remaining friends bugger off home; eventually, he returns to Earth, abandons magic and gets a desk job Рright up until his friends return and convince him to come back to Fillory as a co-regent king, at which point he flies out a window to join them. The End.

Despite being well-written, from a purely technical standpoint, The Magicians is a structural mess, being simultaneously too rushed and too flabby: there’s simply too much happening that doesn’t actually matter, like welters games and the South Pole trip, and while Grossman does his best to skip us swiftly through Quentin’s five years at Brakebills, the fact is that, in a novel which boasts no meaningful secondary plots, it’s not until page 348 of 488 that the characters actually enter Fillory – meaning, by implication if not intent, that the first three quarters of the novel function as little more than an increasingly tedious prologue. As a narrative gambit, this could still have worked if Grossman had used those early sections to focus on solid characterisation, or if anything Quentin learned at school proved relevant in the final, climactic battle. Instead, the secondary characters – yearmate and eventual girlfriend Alice, punk rival Penny, and senior libertines Eliot, Janet and Josh – are barely fleshed out beyond a bare minimum of backstory and a few offhand eccentricities, while in the end, it’s Penny who finds the way into Fillory and Alice who dies to defeat the villain. Quentin, by contrast, winds up a passenger in his own story, contributing nothing meaningful (or at least, nothing useful) despite his apparent specialness and remaining, from go to woe, a thoroughly passive character. Which begs the question: why did Grossman feel the need to show Quentin’s entire tertiary education before letting him go to Fillory? Why, when so little time is spent on characterisation or building a sensible magic system – the latter’s fundamentals are purposefully vague and glossed-over, so that despite the amount of time Quentin spends in classrooms, it’s never really apparent what he’s actually learning, while two new characters, Anais and Richard, are introduced well after the halfway mark for no readily apparent reason – was it necessary to prolong the trip between worlds?

The answer, I suspect, has to do with the story’s moral; or at least, with what one might reasonably construe to be the moral, or the point, or whatever you’d like to call it. As a character, Quentin’s developmental trajectory is that of a disaffected, selfish, horny teenager transitioning into a disaffected, selfish, sexist adult, and while the ending eventually reveals these characteristics to have been deliberate authorial choices, early on, it’s harder to tell whether Grossman realises just how unsympathetic his protagonist really is. Once Quentin graduates from Brakebills, in fact, it’s like a switch has been flipped: whereas before it was possible to attribute most of his failings to youthful, privileged obliviousness, once freed from the confines of college, his bad behaviour escalates dramatically, leaving little doubt that we, the audience, are meant to identify it as such. For all his dissatisfaction with various aspects of his life, ¬†it never occurs to Quentin that he might be the cause of it; always, he assumes his own unhappiness to be either the result of some fundamental flaw in how the world works, or else the fault of some specific person. This lack of self-awareness is key to his passivity: instead of trying to change things, he waits for the problem, whatever it is, to fix itself, and then feels misunderstood and thwarted when his misery remains. Only his affection for Fillory remains constant – Fillory, the perfect other world into which, despite all the magic of his everyday existence, he still secretly yearns to escape. But even once he arrives there, Quentin is still unhappy, prompting a furious Alice to utter what is arguably the novel’s Big Reveal:

“‘I will stop being a mouse, Quentin. I will take some chances. If you will, for just one second, look at your life and see how perfect it is. Stop looking for the next secret door that is going to lead you to your real life. Stop waiting. This is it: there’s nothing else. It’s here, and you’d better decide to enjoy it or you’re going to be miserable wherever you go, for the rest of your life, forever.’

‘You can’t just decide to be happy.’

‘No, you can’t. But you can sure as hell decide to be miserable. Is that what you want? Do you want to be the asshole who went to Fillory and was miserable there? Even in Fillory? Because that’s who you are right now.'”

Quentin struggles to understand this point, but later, once he’s returned to Earth after Alice’s death, the lesson hits home:

“In different ways they had both discovered the same truth: that to live out childhood fantasies as a grown-up was to court and wed and bed disaster.”

And thus, the moral: that wherever you go, you take yourself with you, such that trying to cure your unhappiness by forever yearning after idealised childhood fantasies is doomed to terrible failure. Having vanished into Fillory, the novel’s villain, Martin Chatwin – formerly thought by Quentin to be a fictional character – became the only one of his siblings to stay there forever, an escape which Quentin had always privately envied. But Martin has become a monster, making terrible pacts for power and peace, and all for want of the necessary strength to live in the real world. For an SFF novel, then, this seems to be a particularly cutting message: by first making Quentin an identifiable character for exactly the sort of passive loner stereotypically associated with fandom, and then morphing him into a bitter, unhappy, sexist whose problems stem almost entirely from his lack of self-awareness and his uncritical love of Fillory/Narnia, Grossman is arguably passing negative judgement on a large portion of his own readership, rebuking their drive for escapism as little more than a sign of selfish immaturity. Or at least, if that’s not the intended moral – which is still possible, given that the story ends with Quentin’s return to Fillory – then it certainly ups the ante for the rest of the novel’s problems.

Because however actively or subtly Grossman is trying to critique the sense of entitlement felt by a particular subset of sexist male fans, The Magicians is still saturated with such a high level of background offensiveness that, more often than not, it serves to reinforce exactly the sort of problematic behaviour that it ostensibly means to debunk. Most obviously – and most prominently, as a female reader – is the overwhelmingly negative treatment of women. As I had early cause to observe, most every female character Quentin encounters is unnecessarily sexualised, and often in such a way as to diminish their competence. This isn’t just a consequence of being in Quentin’s point of view; as an attitude, it seeps into the background narration, such that his observations become indistinguishable from Grossman’s. At the most basic level, this resolves itself into a fixation with breasts in particular; we hear about them with just enough regularity to become complacently problematic, so that by the end of the novel, we’ve dealt with the following descriptions:

“…the radiant upper slopes of her achingly full and gropable breasts…” –¬†page 77.

“… he was suddenly aware of her full breasts inside her thin, high-necked blouse.”¬†– page 117.

“At one point one of her slight breasts wandered out of her misbuttoned cardigan that she wore with nothing under it; she tucked it back in without the slightest trace of embarrassment.” – page 252.

“She was whole, thank God, and naked – her body was slim, her breasts slight and girlish. Her nails and nipples were pale purple.” – page 355.

“As he watched she bent over the map, deliberately smooshing her tit into Dint’s shoulder as she did so.” – 405

“The back of her blouse gaped palely open… he could see her black bra strap, which had somehow survived the operation.” – page 409.

“She wore a tight black leather bustier that she was in imminent danger of falling out of.” – page 486.

And that, of course, is just the breasts; there’s plenty of sexualised but largely unnecessary references to other female body parts, too.¬†Add it all together – and compare the prevalence of same to the absence of comparable male descriptions, with the possible exception of a giant’s penis – and you have a story that’s irrevocably written in the male gaze, not just as a consequence of having a straight male protagonist, but because this is what Grossman has chosen to highlight. As I’ve said before, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the male gaze as a literary device, but in a book which is attempting, at least in part, to critique sexism, deploying a variant of the male gaze that focuses wholly on female bodies in a context utterly disconnected from their value as people – and which is never actively acknowledged, let alone flagged as negative – cannot help but be problematic. And then there’s the use of pejorative, sexualised language and gendered insults to contend with, as per the following examples:

“Merits are for pussies,’ he said.”¬†– page 52.

“…Janet got shriller and pushier about the game, and her shrill pushiness became less endearing. She couldn’t help it, it was just her neurotic need to control everything…”¬†– page 152.

“‘Emma wasn’t a cow,’ Josh said. ‘Or if she was, she was a hot cow. She’s like one of those wagyu cows.'” –¬†page 228.

“‘That’s what she wants everybody to think! So you won’t realise what a howling cunt she is!'”¬†– page 237.

“‘If that bothers you, Georgia,’ Fogg said curtly, ‘then you should have gone to beauty school.'”¬†– page 269.

“‘Quentin,’ she said, ‘you have always been the most unbelievable pussy.'”¬†– page 306.

“‘Don’t you¬†fucking¬†speak to me!’ She slapped wildly at his head and shoulders with both hands so that he ducked and put up his arms. ‘Don’t you even dare talk to me, you whore! You fucking whore!'”¬†– page 309.

“She was right, a thousand times right, but if he could just make her see what he saw – if she could only put things in proper perspective. Fucking women.”¬† – page 311.

“‘Oh, come on Quentina.¬†We’re not looking for trouble.'”¬†– page 333.

“Asshole. That slutty nymph was right. This is not your war.”¬†– page 409.

“‘That bloody cunt of a Watcherwoman is still at it, with her damned clock-trees.'”¬†– page 434.

Subtler and more pervasive than all of this, though, is the extent to which Quentin passes negative judgement on the sexuality of the women around him – which is to say, more or less constantly. That might be written off as part of his obnoxious personality, but as with so much else, Grossman seems unable to keep from speculating beyond those bounds. Janet’s sexual choices are frequently scrutinised; within moments of meeting a female Fillory resident, Quentin judges her to be a lesbian on no greater basis than her hair and clothes; it’s even suggested that Anais has somehow managed to sleep with a male stranger while the group is busy exploring a tomb. And then there’s Quentin’s habit of blaming the women around him for his own choices. Unhappy with Alice, he blames her for his bad decisions; having cheated on Alice with Janet, he blames Janet for tempting him; for all the choices he makes in Fillory, he blames Jane for letting him go there. Surely, this just another consequence of his flawed personality; and yet he never seems to blame any men for the things that go wrong in his life. For Quentin, women are always the ones at fault, and it’s this fact, rather than his penchant for blaming others, which reads as unconscious bias.

The sex, too, is deeply problematic, not least because Quentin’s first time with Alice takes place when both of them have, along with all their classmates, been transformed into arctic foxes – something their (male) instructor has cooked up as a way for the group of horny teenagers to let off steam while studying at the bleak South Pole. But what’s never discussed is the issue of consent this raises; or rather, the lack thereof.¬†“He caught a glimpse of Alice’s dark fox eyes rolling with terror and then half shutting with pleasure,” we’re told of their union on page 191 – and somehow, miraculously, despite having betrayed no obvious interest in Quentin before – nor he in her, apart from the single requisite instance of noticing her breasts – they end up in a relationship not long afterwards. There’s never any talk about whether this encounter constitutes rape, or whether it did for any of the other students while turned into foxes; instead, and somewhat disturbingly, the incident leads Quentin to nickname Alice ‘Vix’, as in Vixen, though the sobriquet is only ever used once. Similarly, when we’re told on pages 193-194 that this same isolated class has started to indulge in orgies – “… they would gather in apparently arbitrary combinations, in an empty classroom or in somebody’s bedroom, in semi-anonymous chains, their white uniforms half or all the way off, their eyes glassy and bored as they pulled and stroked and pumped…”¬† – it feels like nothing so much as an¬†unnecessary¬†male fantasy, not least because, under the circumstances, nobody can possibly have any access to birth control. Doubtless, Grossman intended it as a throwaway line, but all it does it contribute to the subconscious sexism of the story: without wanting to divide his readership too sharply along gender lines, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to imagine that more female readers than male were perturbed by the potential for unwanted pregnancies in this section.

Against this worrying backdrop, Quentin’s abysmal treatment of Alice is almost par for the course: clearly, his decision to sleep with Janet is a bad one preceded by plenty of warning signs, not least of all his own admission engaging in “manic flirting and pawing” (page 279) while out at parties. That he then blames Janet for his bad choices – “She’d sabotaged him and Alice, and she was loving it” (page 327) – is one thing, as is his earlier complaint that “if Alice had any blood in her veins she would have joined them” (page 291). This is clearly vile behaviour, and not even Quentin’s obliviousness to that fact is sufficient to conceal it from the reader. But once again, their relationship issues are grounded in a more subtle form of sexism, such as the fact that, even though Alice’s plans to study in Glasgow are effectively vetoed for Quentin’s sake – “the idea of being separated didn’t particularly appeal to either of them, nor did the idea of Quentin’s aimlessly tagging along with her to Scotland” (page 359) – there’s no awareness of the fact that she, in turn, has “put off the kind of civil-service appointment or research apprenticeship that usually ensnared ¬†serious-minded Brakebills students so she could stay in New York with Quentin” (page 77): her sacrifice is simply taken for granted and never mentioned again, even when Quentin’s behaviour worsens.

Alice’s whole character, in fact, is a major strike against The Magicians: not just because she ends up stuffed in the fridge, which is a gross offence in and of itself, but because her relationship with Quentin is utterly unfathomable. In a series of implausible leaps, he goes from noticing her breasts, to thinking she smells “unbe-fucking-lievable” as a fox (and then mounting her), to wondering if he might love her, to their suddenly being together, after which he proceeds to treat her, on balance, very poorly indeed. Alice, though, is the stronger magician by far; what she sees in Quentin is a mystery, and even after he’s cheated on her, she ends up apologising to him for daring to sleep with Penny by way of revenge, saying, “I don’t think I understood how much it would hurt you” (page 404). And Quentin’s response?¬†“‘Maybe you’ll do something one of these days instead of being such a pathetic little mouse all the time'”¬†(page 405). Never mind that, of the two of them, Alice is the proactive one; she agrees with him about her mousiness, because that’s her role in the story: Grossman has written her in as Quentin’s love interest, and so she puts up with his crap above and beyond what her personality indicates she otherwise would or should. Quentin might not be a hero, but he’s still the protagonist, and in such a profoundly male gaze narrative, that means he gets the girl he wants for no better reason than that he wants her; that she dies saving his life from an enemy he summoned through sheer idiocy is hardly fair compensation.

There’s more I’d planned to say about the problems in The Magicians – about Grossman’s uncritical use of the words gimp, cripple and retarded; about the offhand and inappropriate treatment of Eliot’s sexual preferences; ¬†about the weird, peculiar arrogance of alluding to Narnia and Hogwarts so crassly and overtly, as though the best way to deconstruct the complex issues surrounding either world is simply to populate them with scheming, selfish assholes; about every other instance of objectionable sexism that leapt out at me while reading, and which I dully noted down; about the incredibly lazy worldbuilding, handwaved early on in the piece as ultimately unimportant, yet still full of holes and fridge logic – but then I’d be here forever. ¬†Clearly, I didn’t enjoy the book: though pacey and intriguing at the outset, the further I progressed with the narrative, the more I became fractious, bored and angry at the whole thing, as though I were being forced along on a lengthy, pointless car trip with unpleasant company on a hot day. I finished largely out of stubbornness, and to an extent, I’m glad I did, if only for the catharsis: various plot points left open in the early stages were closed out at the end, and at least now I can say I’ve read it. But even though Grossman’s actual writing style is clear and concise, his storytelling is not. The Magicians could easily have been a good 200 pages shorter without losing anything important, while the core conceit – that of sending a grown, troubled Fillory/Narnia fan into their beloved childhood world in order to force a confrontation with their own inadequacies – might well have made better fodder for a short story or novella than a novel.

And underpinning every other objection was the sexism; the pervasive sense that not only was Quentin mistreating, demeaning or otherwise objectifying every woman he encountered, but that Grossman’s own subconscious bias and investment in the male gaze was helping to normalise this bad behaviour rather than, as was hopefully his intention, critique it. Even once the full extent of Quentin’s flaws were revealed, I couldn’t help feeling that story was more concerned with perpetuating sexism at a background level than deconstructing it on a conscious one, and when combined with the other structural and narrative issues pervading the text, the overall reading experience was one of exasperation. As much praise as it’s received, therefore, and as much as I embarked on reading it in a spirit of hopeful optimism, The Magicians was a profound disappointment; I won’t be reading the sequel, and whatever else Grossman writes afterwards, I’ll be predisposed to view it with trepidation.

 

 

Right now, I’m a third of the way through Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, a book whose paciness, premise and execution I’m thus far enjoying, but which is nonetheless conspiring to irk me on gender grounds. Our protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, is a teenaged trainee magician, and for multiple reasons, I’m struggling to connect with him as a character. It’s not that he’s an implausible fiction, per se, but rather than he’s overwhelmingly cast in a mold I’m sick of seeing: that of the quiet, studious, socially awkward straight-white-male from a blandly privileged background with no particular personality beyond his penchant for lamenting his lack of same, and whose specialness is far more frequently told than shown. So far, for instance, we’ve been told of Quentin’s academic excellence in the mundane world without his smarts ever being visibly demonstrated, and then further told that he’s an exceptional young magician on the basis of no more evidence, given his own internal doubts, than a teacher’s say-so. He’s an overwhelmingly passive character: 130 pages in, we’re yet to see him make a proactive decision or do anything other than respond to external pressures, and while that’s not something I object to on principle, I tend to prefer such characters to compensate for their reactiveness in other ways – by possessing a sense of humour, say, or introspecting with insight. Quentin, though, demonstrates neither of these qualities, but rather presents as simultaneously amorphous and entitled; what I suspect is meant to read as a sort of youthful, talented-but-underappreciated everyman as per the standards of fiction, but which in reality describes exactly the sort of person who fades into the background precisely because they have little or nothing to offer socially and no sense of why this matters.

And this bothers me; partly because it seems like a waste, but mostly because this particular species of stock – and it is stock – young male characterisation, that of the generically disenfranchised and romantically¬†unsuccessful¬†loner whose chafing ego is vindicated by the narrative’s confirmation of his innate specialness, always seems to go hand in hand with a particular manifestation of the male gaze; one that’s always bothered me, but whose parameters I’ve only just managed to articulate. Now, to be clear: I have no problem with the male gaze as a concept. I might dislike its unthinking ubiquity at times – such as, for instance, in stories where straight male writers forget to differentiate their own sexual preferences from that of their straight female characters, leading to what Kate Elliot refers to as the omniscient breasts problem – but generally speaking, I’m on board with the idea that, while it might not always be to my taste, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with male characters noticing the physical attractiveness of nearby female characters. I do, however, take issue with expressions of the male gaze that, whether intentionally or not, effectively demean or diminish women in narrative, or which are heavily redolent of negative social attitudes and stereotypes. Thus: a story wherein the straight male hero observes the fierce beauty of a warrior queen is unlikely to rile me; but a story where every female character is gratuitously sexualised will.

The Magicians is very definitely written in the male gaze, and in a way which seems to tell us more about Grossman himself than Quentin as a protagonist Рspecifically, about the extent to which he seems to view female beauty as being incongruous with female competence. By way of demonstration, consider this early passage:

Three paramedics crouched around him, two men and a woman. The woman was disarmingly, almost inappropriately pretty – she looked out of place in that grim scene, miscast…

Quentin wished she weren’t so attractive. Unpretty women were so much easier to deal with in some ways – you didn’t have to face the pain of their probable unattainability. But she was not unpretty. She was pale and thin and unreasonably lovely, with a broad, ridiculously sexy mouth.

And then, consider these lines, which describe an entirely different character:

His tutor was Professor Sunderland, the pretty young woman who had asked him to draw maps during his Examination. She looked nothing like a magician was supposed to: she was blond and dimply and distractingly curvy.

Not long after this, we’re treated to Quentin’s longing for, and I quote, “the radiant upper slopes of her [Professor Sunderland’s] achingly full and gropable breasts,”¬†a sentence which is only slightly less hilarious than it is a disturbing – and, one assumes, unintentional – example of crude lust battling with aesthetic appreciation. In both examples, however, Quentin – and, by extension, Grossman – has concluded that female beauty is incongruous with professionalism; these women are noteworthy, not just because Quentin finds them attractive, but because he doesn’t expect attractive women to be professionals. By direct implication, therefore, Quentin’s surprise at their prettiness undermines his respect for their competence in much the same way that his views on the gropability of Professor Sunderland’s breasts undermines his profession of their radiance. And what makes this an irritating example of the male gaze is the fact that we, the reader, are not meant to notice this dissonance, but are rather expected to sympathise with Quentin: to agree, however tacitly and subconsciously, that it is just a bit surprising and unusual to encounter pretty female professionals, because deep down, our expectation is that intelligence and beauty are mutually exclusive qualities, particularly in women, and that in any case, attractive ladies don’t really need to work at all on account of being attractive.

In this respect, then, The Magicians presents a negative example of the male gaze, in that sexist stereotypes are both present as a background detail and utterly unexamined, let alone acknowledged, by the narrative. But that’s not my main revelation. The other side of the coin is far more subtle: the fact that Quentin’s attraction to women only ever seems to be physical. By which I mean: while women to whom he feels no attraction are described objectively, without sexualisation, his attractions are only ever described in terms of his lust, disassociated from anything deeper or more human like shared interests, emotional¬†connection¬†or personality. And the thing is, if Quentin were meant to be a jaded, sexist, sexually confident character – one whose shallowness was noted in the text – that wouldn’t bother me so much, because it would at least indicate that Grossman and I were on the same page. But because Quentin is meant to be an everyman despite his specialness – because we, the audience, are meant to sympathise with his romantic shortcomings – I find myself repulsed by the unthinking assumption that his hypocrisy doesn’t exist; that it’s perfectly acceptable to lust after women purely because of their bodies with never a thought to liking them as people, all while lamenting their inability to like you for who you are. As though, in other words, their inability to appreciate Quentin as a person has nothing to do with his inability to appreciate them as people, and everything to do with the fact that they’re too beautiful or oblivious to notice him. And the thing is, even though I’m only a third of the way in, this doesn’t seem like a developmental stage he’s about to transcend, because once again, it’s a form of sexist cognitive dissonance that isn’t flagged in the text: we’re not meant to notice it, because in all probability, Grossman didn’t mean for it to be there – or rather, if he did, he didn’t mean for it to be read as negative.

Quentin’s whole character, in other words, is informed by unthinking adherence to male privilege. Despite being bright, having lifelong close friends and a stable homelife, he starts out the novel feeling discontent and disaffected, which unhappiness he contrives to blame equally on his parents and the mundane awkwardness of real life; it doesn’t occur to him to look inwards for the source of his problems, because his sense of entitlement seemingly prevents such critical introspection. Similarly, his unrequited feelings for Julia and the Professor are cast by Grossman as representative of a typical, relatable dynamic – that of the overlooked scholar thwarted by the disinterest of pretty ladies – without any self-awareness of the fact that Quentin isn’t magically entitled to female company; that actually, he’s done nothing to merit their attention, and is in fact being hypocritical in lamenting their lack of appreciation for his personality when his thoughts are only ever concerned with their bodies. Quentin, in other words, in addition to being a fairly unmemorable character, is starting to read like a Nice Guy, and while the rest of the book may hopefully prove me wrong on that point, right now, I’m struggling to cope with this negative variant of the male gaze that’s all the more insidious for being subtle: one where the reader is encouraged to take male privilege – and all the social consequences thereof – for granted, but where its presence is never directly acknowledged.

As has been well-documented by now, subconscious bias is a tricky thing. With the best will in the world, it’s still entirely possible to be blindsided by privilege; to make linguistic, social or narrative choices that reinforce negative stereotypes or which disenfranchise others. This is why it’s so important to think critically about the media we consume and the stories we tell, and to listen when others point out patterns in our behaviour – whether culturally or individually – that are indicative of a deeper, more subtle prejudice. Despite the irrevocable fact that humans are creatures of culture, it can be difficult to determine the origins of our default settings, if only because it disquiets us to think that hidden elements might be influencing our decisions. What does free will mean, if our actions are ultimately informed by beliefs we never knew we held? As tempting as it is to think of subconscious bias as a sort of Jedi mind-trick (something that only works on the stupid or weak-willed; which is to say, other people), that’s only a comforting lie. Our brains get up to all sorts of mischief without our conscious supervision – everything from catching a ball to regulating our hormones – so why should our thoughts be sacrosanct?

The intersection of the collective and the personal, therefore, is a fascinating place: the junction at which we as individuals both shape the culture around us and are shaped by it in turn – a symbiotic ecosystem whose halves have merged, oroborous-like, into a whole. Our actions, no matter how unique to us in terms of motivation, don’t happen in a vacuum; but despite its ubiquity, culture as a concept is amorphous. Trying to convince someone that their behaviour has been influenced by external social pressures – particularly if the end result undermines their good intentions – is like nailing smoke to the wall. I know what I meant, people say, and it had nothing to do with¬†that. And if you don’t know what I was thinking, then how can you possibly judge me?

Let me tell you a story. As a child, I was deeply, innately contrary, but in a very specific way: I couldn’t bear to be told, “You’ll like this!” Even at the age of five, it seemed like such a wholly offensive assumption ¬†– the very cheek of it, adults daring to lecture me on my preferences! – that I would instantly resolve, with the stubborn, bodily determination of children, to hate on principle anything that was thusly recommended. By contrast, anything I was told I wouldn’t like because it was too old for me, or that I wouldn’t understand, I made a perverse effort to enjoy: I simply couldn’t bear the idea that anyone else might know me as well as – or better than – I did. Had my parents ever thought to deploy it, reverse psychology doubtless would’ve worked a treat; instead, I ended up fleeing the room with my hands clapped over my ears when my father first tried to read me The Hobbit, so adamant was my refusal to meet his expectations. I’ve grown much less contrary with age, of course, but even so, it’s still an active process: I have to constantly watch myself, and a big part of that is acknowledging that other people’s opinions don’t magically become invalid just because they’re assessing my thought process.

The point being, external criticism is just as important as internal certainty. The two perspectives are a necessary balance, and while being firmly mired in my own brain is a viewpoint unique to me, that doesn’t mean other people can’t make relevant observations about my behaviour – or, more importantly, about my place in a pattern to which my privilege has rendered me oblivious.

Which brings me to the current explosion of websites, memes, Twitter feeds and tumblrs dedicating to crowdsourcing proof of the ubiquity of prejudice. Once upon a time, for instance, if a colleague or acquaintance made a disturbing remark at the pub – such real-world locales being the default point of comparison whenever we start worrying about being held accountable for the things we say online – then there’d be no record of the comment beyond the level of individual memory. At best, we might have written it down as close to verbatim as possible, but then what would happen? Nothing, as there was nowhere to put such information and no reasonable means of distributing it. More likely, we’d vent our outrage by retelling the story to others, but with each iteration, the tale would weaken, eventually becoming little more than an¬†anecdote whose relevance our audience could deny, or whose truthfulness they could question, on the basis of a lack of solid evidence. ‘It was just a one-off,’ they might say – but without the testimony of others to support our claim that the remark was representative of a bigger problem, how could we possibly prove otherwise?

Now, though, people’s prejudicial comments are anything but ephemeral. Everything from status updates to dating profiles is a matter of public record, and even if we go back and try to edit or delete our words, the simple magic of screencapping means that an original copy may still exist. When that sort of data is passed along, there can be no uncertainty as to what was really said, because nothing is being degraded in the transmission. Even in instances where sites are collecting, not screencaps, but personal stories of bias and discrimination, the cumulative effect of seeing so many similar incidents ranged together serves to undermine the suggestion that any one victim was simply overreacting. Thanks to the interconnectedness of the internet, disparate individuals are now uniting to prove that the prejudice they experience is neither all in their heads nor the result of isolated bigotry, but rather part of a wider, more pervasive cultural problem. And where such data is collected en masse, it becomes progressively harder to deny the truth of their experiences: because if our whole reason for doubting specific accounts of prejudice is based on the assumption of an unreliable narrator, then how are we to justify our dismissal of hundreds – perhaps even thousands – of similar cases?

Frustrated by constantly encountering the same sort of sexist abuse online and then being told that the problem was a minor one perpetrated solely by idiot teenage boys, female gamers responded by setting up Fat, Ugly or Slutty¬†and Not In The Kitchen Anymore, two hefty databases of audiofiles, screenshots and in-game videos that stand as collective testament to the scope of their routine harassment. Sick of being told that their experiences of condescension and exclusion¬†from sexist, racist colleagues was only so much thin-skinned paranoia, academics have begun documenting their experiences at sites like Mansplained¬†and What Is It Like To Be A Woman In Philosophy?, the better to highlight the prevalence of such bias.¬†Tired of seeing female characters drawn in objectifying postures that are, quite literally, anatomically impossible, discerning fans have set up sites like Boobs Don’t Work That Way and Escher Girls to document the problem. In recent days, when Twitter has been inundated with racism in response to topics as varied as the US election results and the recent Red Dawn movie, angry netizens have collectively banded together to take screenshots, collate the data and then name and shame those responsible, as per the modus operandi of sites like Hello There, Racists¬†and Hunger Games Tweets. For street harassment, there’s any number of tumblrs to choose from – which is itself a depressing reflection on just how common a problem it is – along with sites like¬†Hollaback and Catcalled¬†that are trying to combat the issue directly.

There are collective resources for day to day instances of sexism, like About Male Privilege, Everyday Media Sexism¬†and Everyday Sexism;¬†resources for sexual harassment and abuse, like Got Stared At;¬†and¬†Twitter feeds dedicated to weeding out some of the more disturbing quotes from sites like¬†Reddit¬†and various¬†PUA¬†(Pick-Up Artist)¬†message boards. There’s also the utterly heartbreaking Project Unbreakable, which consists of pictures of rape survivors holding up signs bearing chilling quotes from their rapists. From the LGBTQ side of things, there are tumblrs like I’m Not Homophobic, But¬†(two of them, actually);¬†Dear Cis People, which is a collective of messages from trans individuals trying to counter prejudice; and¬†Things My Transphobic Mother Says, which does what it says on the tin. And then, of course, there’s seemingly endless bingo cards: arguments that various communities have heard so many times as to render them both offensively unoriginal and predictive of the ignorance of their interlocutors. Examples include Anti-Comics Feminist Bingo,¬†Sexism In Games Bingo, Racism In SF Bingo, Political Racism Bingo, MRA Bingo, Homo/Biphobic Bingo¬†and GLBT Fiction Bingo – and that’s just for starters.

As demonstrated by the¬†mixed¬†public¬†reaction¬†to the recently established¬†Nice Guys of OK Cupid¬†tumblr (to say nothing of the¬†outrage¬†its¬†existence¬†has¬†provoked¬†among¬†detractors), this new breed of public shaming, whereby ordinary people are publicly mocked for saying bigoted, offensive, or downright creepy things on the internet, tends to be viewed with a combination of schadenfreude, resentful worry and outright rubbernecking – and yet, at the same time, it undeniably fills a relevant need. Because, as demonstrated by¬†the recent exposure of Redditor Michael Brutsch, aka Violentacrez¬†and the concurrent discovery of actual criminal behaviour within his subreddits, there can be a disturbing correlation – though not necessarily causation – between saying horrendous things online about women, POC and LGBTQ persons, and actually threatening, endangering or actively harming such persons through hate speech, stalking or other criminal behaviour. Legally, however, there’s almost no way to take such behaviour as a warning sign and initiative useful preventative strategies: until or unless someone actually ends up hurt – thought of course, psychological suffering is seldom counted – the justice system is useless. Employers and schools, on the other hand, have proven themselves more than willing to sack or discipline staff and students whose online hijinks attract the wrong kind of attention – or, more worryingly, who simply dare to be critical of the institutions to which they belong; while some have even been fired for defending themselves from overt discrimination.

This is hardly an ideal situation, not least because it places the burden of extrajudicial justice into the hands of individuals whose only available form of reprimand – the withdrawal of money or education – is arguably the worst possible reaction to such offenses. Aside from doing nothing to address the root cause of the problem and everything to exacerbate a sense of entitled resentment that the mighty forces of Politically Correct Censorship are reaching out to ruin the lives of ordinary, hard-working people, this sort of trial by media – or rather, trial by¬†institutional¬†response to trial by media – sets a dangerous precedent in allowing organisations unparalleled scope to punish employees, not for their on-job actions, but for who they are as people. And yet, by the same token, we as humans don’t just switch off our bigotry the minute we clock on at work or enter school grounds. If an employee’s online behaviour is saturated with undeniable racism and misogyny – and if that person is employed alongside women and POC – then how can their beliefs in the one sphere not be demonstrably relevant to their actions in the other? If subconscious bias is enough to measurably affect the decisions of even the most well-intentioned people, then how much more damaging might the influence of conscious bias be?

More and more, it seems, we’re crowdsourcing our stories of prejudice – and, as a consequence, policing ourselves and others – out of a sense of desperation. Despite technically being on our side, in the sense that most forms of discrimination on the basis of race, gender and sexual orientation are illegal, the legal and judiciary systems are years away from being able to effectively intervene in instances of online harassment, while even the concept of a dedicated mechanism, agency or other such authoritative body designed to step in and address the problem in lieu of random mob justice feels improbable. Eventually, it’s inevitable that both our cultural assumptions and our standard response to online bigotry will evolve, but progress towards that point will be slow and haphazard, and in the mean time, there’s still an obvious problem to be addressed.

Writing several years ago on the decline of traditional print media, technological commentator Clay Shirky drew a comparison between our current state of change and the turmoil that was first produced by the introduction of the printing press. To quote:

During the wrenching transition to print, experiments were only revealed in retrospect to be turning points. Aldus Manutius, the Venetian printer and publisher, invented the smaller¬†octavo¬†volume along with italic type. What seemed like a minor change ‚ÄĒ take a book and shrink it ‚ÄĒ was in retrospect a key innovation in the democratization of the printed word. As books became cheaper, more portable, and therefore more desirable, they expanded the market for all publishers, heightening the value of literacy still further.

That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen. Agreements on all sides that core institutions must be protected are rendered meaningless by the very people doing the agreeing. (Luther and the Church both insisted, for years, that whatever else happened, no one was talking about a schism.) Ancient social bargains, once disrupted, can neither be mended nor quickly replaced, since any such bargain takes decades to solidify.

And so it is today. When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.

There are fewer and fewer people who can convincingly tell such a lie.

And so it is, I suspect, with the rules that previously governed the separation of our personal, public and working lives. All three spheres overlap in ways they previously didn’t simply because our physical presence in a given space is no longer the most pertinent factor in determining when and how we inhabit it, and under whose aegis. Intuitively, it makes sense to assume that someone who believes women to be inherently submissive will shrink from promoting female employees to positions of dominance, because even were such a person inclined to try and act against their instincts for the sake of corporate equality, we as people aren’t so compartmentalised that the attempt would always meet with success. And yet, what else can we do but try? Nobody is perfect, and the solution to deep-seated bigotry isn’t simply to fire or expel everyone who dares to express the least bit of prejudice; all that does is encourage the use of subtle discrimination, while the underlying problems still remain. In the mean time, though, we have shaming tumblrs and bingo cards and angry, public discussions about the cognitive dissonance necessary to claim that one is a gentleman while simultaneously asserting that sometimes, other people are obliged to have sex with you, because society is yet to construct a viable alternative.

It’s by no means a perfect solution – or even, in fact, a solution at all. Rather, it’s a response to the widespread assumption that there isn’t even a problem to be solved, or which can be solved, or which is demonstrably worth solving. And until we’ve debunked that assumption, there’s nothing else to be done but to keep on amassing data, calling out bigotry and using such tools as are available to us to see what happens next. As Shirky says, it’s a revolution, and until we’ve come out on the other side, there’s simply no way of knowing what will happen. All we can do is watch and wait and learn – and keep on tumblring.