Archive for April, 2014

I first became active online when I was eleven or twelve, back in 1998; I’d just started high school. To use the internet, I had to go into my mother’s study and use a 56k dial-up modem that sounded like a series of cartoon pratfalls. My first proper blog, if you can call it that, was attached to my Elfwood account, after which I¬†progressed steadily¬†to fourms, private sites, and finally to actual blogging and collaborative platforms. I posted poetry, short stories, book and film reviews, and political opinions,¬†but though I got into plenty of arguments and even made a few friends, I doubt I had more than a dozen or so readers at any one time, and most of them were people I knew IRL. I was shouting into a void, but that was fine, because I’d never expected an audience: I just wanted to write, to get my thoughts out, and to put them somewhere that wasn’t a poorly-labelled Word document on a shared computer.

All through my teens, I kept it up. For a brief period during university, I even had my own paid website, called Wordwench, maintained and coded by my then-boyfriend. Though there were sometimes long hiatuses between posts, and despite the trail of abandoned sites and usernames I left behind me over the years, I always wrote, even when I didn’t know who I was writing for, or why, or whether anyone was listening. You can backdate my desire to be an author to the same year I discovered the internet, too; and maybe that’s significant, and maybe it’s not, but either way, even when I was too shy and paranoid to ever put my actual novel-attempts online, I kept writing them, kept blogging and arguing and posting opinions, because it never occurred to me not to. Aged sixteen, writing in response to a friend’s amazement at how much I wrote, I ended an otherwise wholly unmemorable poem with a single decent phrase:

“My words are a sonar, a path to be walked.

I write like a whale sings.”

And even though the sentiment now feels bombastic and self-aggrandising, at some base level, ¬†it still also feels true. I write as a form of self-navigation. I don’t know how not to write, how to just have thoughts unmediated by ink and script and keyboard. The older I get, the more I feel like a chimaerical creature, three-headed, trifurcated into distinct personalities – how I seem to strangers, how I seem to friends, how I see myself – whose only point of overlap is the part of me that writes; which is, perhaps,¬†the only real part. I so often feel dissonant within myself, but words are anchors, words are steel and sky and the blood that hammers me in place, the fire that keeps me functioning when all other sparks go out. When I have been depressed, sunk in dark trenches, lit only by small hopes as dimglowing and treacherous as anglerfish, it has always been three words, the same three words, that pull me out again: what happens next?¬†I thought it was a mantra I conjured in high school, words to sooth the moon from my eyes on endless insomniac nights, but years later, my mother told me I’d said the same thing in childhood, too, whenever a bedtime story ended. What happens next? my girlself asked, and perhaps that’s why she grew up to be a writer. How else could she find answers?

Because the truth is, stories never end; we just exit them a while, like passengers alighting a train with no final destination. There’s always a thing that happens next, and a thing after that, and a thing after that, most of them small, but a great many not; and these are the things we live for. And now, such a thing has happened to me: I’ve been nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer, alongside four other people I immensely respect – Abigail Nussbaum, Liz Bourke, Kameron Hurley and Mark Oshiro – and even though there’s been controversy in other quarters, such that part of me feels I ought to discuss it, in truth, with everyone who’s already contributed, I don’t feel I can add much more to the discussion, and so you’re getting this instead: a rambling Once Upon A Time about a girl who was bitten by words, infecting her with liticism, which tragically has no cure but a life spent writing; and how, all these years later, I find myself with an audience, and a peer group, and a place in a community, and some small, tangible proof of the fact that enough of you like what I write here that you nominated me, and so – thank you.

That’s all I wanted to say, really. Thank you. It means a lot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buzzfeed Brony question

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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