Posts Tagged ‘Homophobia’

Trigger warning: rape. 

Penny Arcade is the webcomic that got me into webcomics, which is saying something. The first truly geeky friends I met at school showed it to me almost as a rite of passage, thereby hooking me not only on the strip itself, but webcomics generally. For years, PA held pride of place with all of us: most quoted, most referenced, most likely to be shown to yet more newcomers as an offer of subcultural goodwill. A friend and I once spent an entire all-day Latin seminar staving off boredom by writing PA quotes to each other in a shared notebook; at college, I introduced my hallmates to it and ended up participating in several cardboard tube samurai battles on the front lawn; I still sometimes wear my Div shirt. In fact, my email signature contains a Tycho quote – not from a comic, but from a now-ancient newspost about the Playstation; so ancient, in fact, that I don’t think it’s even online any more, and which was so obscure originally that I’m probably one of the few people who actively remembers it, let alone ascribes it personal relevance.  The quote, which I have memorised, goes like this:

People seemed to prefer this, but only marginally so, the way one might prefer to be stabbed than shot. Optimally, one is neither stabbed nor shot. Optimally, one eats some cake! But there are times when cake is not available, and instead we are destroyed. This is the deep poetry of the universe.

You’d have to perform an impressive feat of archaeological psychology in order to understand the relevance of this statement to my sixteen-year-old self; or rather, in order to understand why, of all possible quotes from all possible PA newsposts, it was this one she chose to take to heart. Nonetheless, it’s a line I’ve always liked, because even though it originally appeared in context as a form of poetic sarcasm, it still manages to convey something important about life, the universe and everything, viz: sometimes there are just no good options available.

At the time of the dickwolves controversy – that is to say, slightly less than two years ago – I had never heard of rape culture. So when I saw that PA was being accused of it, my first reaction, rather than to get angry at the strip itself, was to try and get my head around what rape culture actually was. By the time I’d done this, enough time had passed that the furor had died down, which left me in sort of a weird headspace. On the one hand, the dickwolves joke made me uncomfortable even before I encountered criticism of it, and after I’d done so, I thought the critics had a point; on the other, I had a deep-seated trust and affection for all things PA, and as I’d come late to the argument, I didn’t feel much personal impetus to weigh in. Instead, I resolved to become a more critical reader, and to keep my eyes peeled for any future offences.

And then, today happened.

Basically, the trailer for the new Hitman game involves hypersexualised BDSM assassin-nuns being beaten to death by the male protagonist, and a significant proportion of the online gaming community has risen up to point out that this is both textbook rape culture and completely, grossly offensive. So when I saw that PA’s Tycho (aka Jerry Holkins) had followed up their latest strip with an explanatory newspost, I was understandably curious as to what his stance would be.

To quote:

I saw a single still used to promote a Hitman: Absolution trailer, a phalanx of leather-clad Battle-Nuns, and decided to skip it.  I felt like I had probably seen something very similar at some point.  But being mad at it is apparently a thing, a compulsory thing.  Except I don’t do compulsory, and I also don’t do infantilizing chivalry.  So I don’t do well at these kinds of parties…

It’s fight choreography, and it may set an “erotic” stage but it quickly – and I mean quickly – gives way to a gruesome, life or death, septum obliterating struggle that might be hot for somebody but I suspect that’s a very specific demographic.  Only a necrophile could be titillated by something like this; by the end, it literally defies the viewer to maintain an erection.  As spank material, it leaves something to be desired; specifically, spank material.

I think that once a nun produces an RPG from her habit, we have passed through a kind of “veil” critically speaking.  We can certainly talk about it for a long time if you want to.  But she did pull out a rocket launcher, seriously just right out of there.  It came out.  And then people still wanted to talk about this as though it were some kind of haunted obelisk around which an entire medium whirls.

I don’t understand what it is about the idea of a “medium” that people find so confusing; it’s a conceptual space where works that share certain characteristics may occur.  Nobody is going to approve of the entire continuum.  There’s no shortage of games for the broadest possible audience – there isn’t, and grotesque sums are being made seeking the wide part of the curve.  There are also niches, as in any ecology.  You can certainly find things you don’t like, but those things aren’t anti-matter; when they come into contact with things you do like, there is no hot flash which obliterates both.  This totalizing dialogue, where “everything” and “everyone” is this or that, and here are the teams, and morality is a linear abstraction as opposed to its three dimensional reality is a crock of fucking shit.

The swooning and fainting and so forth about this stuff, the fever, is comical in its preening intensity.  There is clearly some kind of competition to determine who is the most scandalized.  It reminds me of church, frankly; I don’t do church, either.  I have no common cause with perpetually shocked viziers of moral pageantry.  Indeed, I think it is fair to say that I am their enemy.

The answer is always more art; the corollary to that is the answer is never less art.  If you start to think that less art is the answer, start over.  That’s not the side you want to be on.  The problem isn’t that people create or enjoy offensive work.  The problem is that so many people believe that culture is something other people create, the sole domain of some anonymized other, so they never put their hat in the ring.

That’s basically the whole post, right there; and as I read it, I experienced this sort of terrible wrenching in the part of the brain that houses our idealised past, our youthful idols, and all the naive perfection and nostalgia we ascribed to them first at the time and then later in memory. It only lasted a moment, but it was profound, because it irrevocably signals the point at which Jerry Holkins transitioned from being “geeky figurehead I respect” to “stubborn, selectively insensitive ass on the internet” in my personal lexicon. Which isn’t to say that these are forever and always mutually exclusive positions; it was just disappointing as hell, however heralded by his response to the dickwolves incident (or even to the fact that he thought it was acceptable in the first place).

When broken down, his argument basically runs as follows:

  • compulsory things are bad – or rather, compulsory outrage linked to what he seems to think of as political correctness is bad;
  • he personally doesn’t find the video arousing, so therefore the argument about it being hypsexualised is  moot;
  • because the nuns are doing something physically impossible (withdrawing big weapons from skintight clothing), the setting is confirmed as unreal, which means nobody can sensibly complain about anything else it gets wrong;
  • any problematic elements that still conceivably exist aren’t representative of gaming culture as a whole, but only of a niche section of games whose existence constitutes a healthy part of the creative ecology;
  • complaining about the influence or subject matter of such games is missing the point, because we should all be able to just respect each other’s tastes; and
  • bringing any moral or social complaint to the table is not only tantamount to the advocation of censorship, but something people only do when they want to be scandalized, as opposed to actually having a legitimate complaint.

Let’s address these points in order, shall we?

1. Compulsory things are bad – or rather, compulsory outrage linked to what he seems to think of as political correctness is bad.

Disparaging something lots of people care about as ‘compulsory’ and thereby refusing to participate is an act that tends to fall into one of two categories: childish contrition, as per a toddler refusing to eat their vegetables, or hipsterish disdain, as per anyone who refuses to read a book, watch a movie or listen to a song solely on the basis that it’s popular. Applying this attitude to politics – or, more specifically, to problems of inequality – is pretty much the genesis of hipster racism and ironic sexism, which (funnily enough) are both completely indistinguishable from actual racism and sexism. So straight off the bat, anyone who says they refuse to get angry about rape culture because that’s what everyone else is doing – or, to use Tycho’s words, because they “don’t do compulsory” –  has, much like the hipster racist, completely sidestepped the issue of whether bad things are genuinely happening in order to try and look cool. Which, yeah, no.

2. He personally doesn’t find the video arousing, so therefore the argument about it being hypsexualised is  moot.

Every time I hear someone arguing that a particular sexualised or negative representation of women is neither problematic nor offensive because they, personally, don’t find it sexy, I die a little inside. Dear straight men everywhere: case by case, the hypersexualisation of women is not definitionally dependent on your getting a boner. It’s not even necessarily about what you consciously find attractive or erotic. Subconscious bias is a real thing: the images we see, the stories we absorb and the cultural narratives in which we participate all have the power to change our unconscious assumptions about the world. Anyone who thinks that our conscious reactions and preferences are all that matter is missing the point by quite a substantial margin. The Hitman: Absolution trailer isn’t problematic because somehow, magically, the majority of straight men who watch it will feel conscious arousal and/or actively think about hurting women as a result (though doubtless there’s a concerning minority who will); the problem is that the majority of people who watch it, regardless of orientation or gender, will subconsciously absorb the message that violence and sexuality are linked; that images of beautiful dead women are normal; and that there’s nothing sexist or problematic about the image of a man gratuitously killing hypersexualised nuns being used to sell videogames. The argument, in short – that games can’t change us, and that their content doesn’t matter – is one that PA have actively pilloried when reactionary politicians have used it to say that games aren’t art; to argue that games can only change us for the better, however, seems just as ignorant. You can’t have your cake and eat it, too: if games are truly a valid means of cultural expression with the power to effect real change in those who love them, then that means they can impart both negative and positive development; can be dominated by negative or positive trends. Asserting otherwise is an act of willful blindness – and not only because fiction has an actual neurological effect on our brains.

3. Because the nuns are doing something physically impossible (withdrawing big weapons from skintight clothing), the setting is confirmed as unreal, which means nobody can sensibly complain about anything else it gets wrong.

Seriously, this isn’t a point I should need to explain to anyone who regularly grapples with SFF, but as I apparently do:  the presence of unreality in a story no more renders it immune to criticism on the grounds of sexism than it excuses a lack of narrative cohesion, poor writing or offensive stereotypes. The fact that a story isn’t ‘about’ sexism doesn’t prevent it from being sexist, and the presence of one flaw – improbably concealed weapons – certainly doesn’t obviate the presence of others – hideously sexualised violence and dead BDSM nuns. Honestly, I’m not even sure what Tycho meant to convey with this point: that because one visual element of the trailer was problematic or unreal, calling the whole thing out for sexism and rape culture is redundant? That because the game isn’t very good or original, nobody should comment on how offensive the trailer is? Neither of those arguments makes any sense at all, unless your sole purpose in deploying them is to try and argue that accusations of sexism and rape culture are less important than poor visual continuity in a second-rate game.

Oh. Wait.

4. Any problematic elements that still conceivably exist aren’t representative of gaming culture as a whole, but only of a niche section of games whose existence constitutes a healthy part of the creative ecology.

The assertion that sexism and rape culture aren’t part of mainstream gaming culture – or even that they’re problems worth discussing with reference to gaming culture as a whole – is both hugely problematic in its own right and deeply baffling when you consider that not long ago, the PA site was providing coverage about the widespread prevalence of sexual harassment and rape culture in fighting game circles when Aris Bakhtanians said they were fine and necessary aspects of it. And it’s not like PA has traditionally been oblivious to the sexualisation of women in games, online and by geek culture generally –  although they’ve definitely perpetrated sexism as well as criticising it. Or, put it another way: Penny Arcade has been around now since 1998 – that’s the better part of fourteen years – and has been considered a preeminent voice in gaming culture for most of that time. So if I can dip into their archives and, over the course of fifteen-odd minutes, find regular references to sexualised depictions of women in games, sexual insults in gaming and sexual harassment generally, then it doesn’t seem unreasonable to conclude that sexism in gaming and the hypersexualisation of female characters has been an ongoing issue for at least the past decade. I mean, seriously: it’s one thing to argue that all this bullshit belongs to a niche area of gaming that has nothing to do with the mainstream, and quite another to say so when your own history of creative output  – which itself constitutes your professional livelihood – contradicts you.

5. Complaining about the influence or subject matter of such games is missing the point, because we should all be able to just respect each other’s tastes.

Respecting other people’s tastes is generally a good rule to live by, but acknowledging that some depictions are problematic and actively contribute to problematic cultures is still necessary. More than once, PA has referenced the prevalence of homophobia and homophobic insults in the gaming community; in fact, they’ve arguably taken active steps to destigmatise it. This being so, I can’t understand why, when it comes to the issue of rape culture, the whole issue reverts to this wishy-washy stance that people should be allowed to like what they like. The only possible explanation is either that Tycho just doesn’t see rape culture as an issue in the same way homophobia is, or that somehow, he doesn’t see it as an issue at all – neither of which is exactly encouraging.

6. Bringing any moral or social complaint to the table is not only tantamount to the advocation of censorship, but something people only do when they want to be scandalized, as opposed to actually having a legitimate complaint.

Similar to the above, it would be ludicrous to suggest that attempts to counteract homophobia in gaming represent active censorship in terms of what stories can be told and the destructive presence of a ‘compulsory’ political agenda – by which I mean, the only people suggesting it are themselves homophobes. So why, when it comes to an identical issue of language, bias and prejudice, is PA suddenly fearmongering about how acknowledging the existence of rape culture in games is somehow the same as arguing for the creation of ‘less art’?

Well, I guess Tycho was right about one thing: there are certainly times when cake is not available, and instead we are destroyed. Or at least, our faith in humanity is.

Don’t let the title put you off. This isn’t what you think.

With few exceptions, there comes a point in every little girl’s life when she first suffers exclusion on the basis of gender. For me, this happened regularly in primary school sports: the boys didn’t like it when I wanted to play cricket, and would actively gang up to ensure I was either kept away from the bat or relegated to the furthest reaches of the outfield. Children aren’t paragons of political correctness: unlike later in life, I knew definitively then that gender was the reason for this behaviour, because I was openly told as much. Over and over again, whether it was soccer or cricket or handball or football or some other thing the boys were doing, I had to fight for inclusion, because even at the tender ages of seven and eight and nine, boys knew that girls were no good at sport; that my presence on the field, let alone my desire to play, was aberrant, and that my foregone incompetence would spoil it for the rest of them.

This isn’t the only way it can happen. Some of the exclusion is even orchestrated by adults, who, whether intentionally or not, project onto children their subconsciously-absorbed ideas about who should be doing what. Don’t play with the truck, dear – it’s for boys. Wouldn’t you rather wear a dress? Only boys have short hair; yours is lovely and long. The inverse happens too, of course, and to equal detriment: in fact, when adults police the behaviour of children, the crackdown on boys who behave in feminine ways is far more severe than what transgressing girls experience, with the result that boys are much more likely to be mocked and policed by their peers, too, and from an earlier age. My own experiences bear this out: only at high school was I ostracized for being masculine. Prior to that, none of my female friends ever minded my tomboyishness – but from the earliest years of primary school, my male friends were actively persecuted by other boys for hanging around with a girl.

The above scenarios are not atypical. Thanks to the hyper-gendering of children’s toys, clothes, television shows, picture books, dress-up costumes and perceived interests, the basic rules of childhood play are rife with learned gender politics. The ubiquity of school-sanctioned sports and games – that is, things boys are stereotypically meant to be good at – during primary education, especially when placed against the comparative dearth of stereotypically girlish activities, means that the dynamics of exclusion work primarily against girls. This is because, while boys are seldom confronted with or encouraged to participate recreationally in ‘feminine’ activities, girls are regularly taught and told to engage in ‘masculine’ ones. This means that unless, like my childhood friends, boys decide on their own initiative to befriend girls or take up ‘feminine’ activities, they may never experience gender-exclusion at school; but that girls, thanks to the gendering of sports and particular play activities, almost certainly will. Perhaps more importantly, however, this skewed dynamic means that both boys and girls are taught to associate exclusion with femaleness. In the vast majority of cases, girls aren’t penalised for behaving like boys – after all, teachers encourage them at sports, and girls are allowed to wear boyish clothing – but for being girls doing masculine things. Boys, on the other hand, are penalised both for behaving like girls AND for being boys doing feminine things. Throw in the fact that boys are invariably penalised more harshly for their transgressions than girls – adults police boys who wear dresses; peers police boys who play with dolls – and you end up with a situation where all children, regardless of gender, are absorbing the message that for many things, it’s better to be masculine and male than feminine and female.

We also teach children they live in an equal society.

Clearly, this isn’t true; and as the above should demonstrate, examples of its untruth abound in childhood. But children, by and large, are not critical thinkers, and adults, by and large, are sadly averse to questions from children that challenge the status quo. Asked whether boys can wear make-up, for instance, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume that many, if not most parents would answer that no, they can’t; or that they could, technically, but don’t; or that make-up is just for girls; or even that it’s wrong for boys to do so. And because their question has been answered in accordance with what they see in the world, most children will probably nod and store that information safely away, so that if, some time in the future, they do see a boy or man wearing make-up, they’ll instinctively find it troubling – even though their original question has long since been forgotten. And all of that only concerns gender differences: throw in the additional and equally complex problems of race, nationality, sexual orientation and culture, and you’ve got yourself a maelstrom of youthfully-learned biases.

The point is, childhood matters. A lot.

Which is where we come to the inherent problem of telling these same children, once they’ve grown into teens and young adults, that society is equal. It doesn’t help – and is, I’d contend, actively harmful – that lessons which mention equality are almost always tied to the achievements of a particular historical group (the women’s suffrage movement, for instance) rather than to the pervasive bias that made their actions necessary to begin with. This creates the false impression that, as the movement ultimately succeeded, the equality of the outcome was absolute – and as the lesson tends to be about the movement itself, rather than what came afterwards or its ongoing relevance in the present day, students are left, quite literally, with the feeling that a chapter has been closed. Even if accepting the existence of total equality as gospel means actively discounting our own experiences with inequality as anomalous, the majority of students will do so – because even though teens frequently question the relevance of school or the utility of its lessons, questioning the truthfulness of their content in the absence of external prompting invokes a far greater conspiracy.

How, then, does any of this relate to the frankly incendiary notion that teaching equality hurts men?

Because of everyone, straight, white men are the least likely people to experience exclusion and inequality first-hand during their youth, and are therefore the most likely to disbelieve its existence later in life. Unless they seek out ‘feminine’ pastimes as children – and why would they, when so much of boy-culture tells them not to? – they will never be rebuked or excluded on the basis of gender. Unless someone actively takes the time to convince them otherwise, they will learn as teens that the world is an equal place – an assertion that gels absolutely with their personal experiences, such that even if women, LGBTQ individuals and/or POC  are rarely or never visible in their world, they are nonetheless unlikely to stop and question it. They will likely study white-male-dominated curricula, laugh ironically at sexist, racist and homophobic jokes, and participate actively in a popular culture saturated with successful, varied, complex and interesting versions of themselves – and this will feel right and arouse no suspicion whatever, because this is what equality should feel like. They will experience no sexual or racial discrimination when it comes to getting a job and will, on average, earn more money than the women and POC around them – and if they stop to reflect on either of these things, they’ll do so in the knowledge that, as the world is equal, any perceived hierarchical differences are simply reflective of the meritocracy at work.

They will not see how the system supports their success above that of others, because they have been told that equality stripped them of their privileges long ago. Many will therefore react with bafflement and displeasure to the idea of positive discrimination, hiring quotas or any other such deliberate attempts at encouraging diversity – because not only will it seem to genuinely disadvantage them, but it will look like an effort to undermine equality by granting new privileges to specific groups. Never having experienced inequality, therefore, the majority of straight white men will be absolutely oblivious to their own advantages – not because they must necessarily be insensitive, sexist, racist, homophobic or unaware of the principles of equality; but because they have been told, over and over again, that there is no inequality left for them – or anyone else – to experience – and everything they have experienced up to that point will only have proved them right.

Let the impact of that sink in for a moment.

By teaching children and teenagers that equality already exists, we are actively blinding the group that most benefits from inequality – straight white men – to the prospect that it doesn’t. Privilege to them feels indistinguishable from equality, because they’ve been raised to believe that this is how the world behaves for everyone. And because the majority of our popular culture is straight-white-male-dominated, stories that should be windows into empathy for other, less privileged experiences have instead become mirrors, reflecting back at them the one thing they already know: that their lives both are important and free from discrimination.

And this hurts men. It hurts them by making them unconsciously perpetrate biases they’ve been actively taught to despise. It hurts them by making them complicit in the distress of others. It hurts them by shoehorning them into a restrictive definition masculinity from which any and all deviation is harshly punished. It hurts them by saying they will always be inferior parents and caregivers, that they must always be active and aggressive even when they long for passivity and quietude, that they must enjoy certain things like sports and beer and cars or else be deemed morally suspect. It hurts them through a process of indoctrination so subtle and pervasive that they never even knew it was happening , and when you’ve been raised to hate inequality, discovering that you’ve actually been its primary beneficiary is horrifying – like learning that the family fortune comes from blood money.

To be clear: these personal hurts are not the same as cultural disadvantages (though in the case of men being forced to adhere to a restrictive masculinity, they can certainly cause legitimate pain, distress and disadvantage, the discussion of which would merit a blog of its own). This post isn’t about bemoaning the woes of the privileged, but about making clear the circumstances under which the existence of that privilege can so often go unquestioned and unnoticed by those who have it; and to point out why, when the question of their being privileged is first raised, so many people react with disbelief and anger. I say people, because although I’ve focused this piece on the privileges of straight white men, they are not the only privileged group. Intersectionality must be a serious part of any discourse centered on equality, or else those of us who aren’t straight white men but who nonetheless enjoy privilege will only be training ourselves to unsee our advantages in just as problematic and damaging a way.

We all, right now, need to stop the pretense that the world is anything near an equal place. Sexism, racism and homophobia are not only commonplace, but actively institutional. Universal suffrage and the civil rights movement are not, and never have been, the be-all, end-all of either our legal or cultural freedoms. Fraternities of straight white men have equality – but when you consider that this selfsame group has majority control of Western government, it shouldn’t be hard to understand the ubiquity of the lie that everyone else has it, too. The only way to fight for equality is to acknowledge that we don’t yet have it – and to admit that sometimes, our self-perception, no matter how well-intentioned, is the very thing at fault.

Because teaching equality doesn’t just hurt men. It hurts everyone.

Following on from my recent thoughts on female characters in YA dystopias and the Broken Bird trope, something else about the treatment of women in stories has been niggling at me. Writing those both posts, my emotional reaction was consistently stronger and more negative than seemed explicable by their topics alone – as though there was something else under it, some deeper irk I couldn’t consciously describe, but which was nonetheless feeding into my reaction. Ever since then, I’ve been trying to figure out what it was; and now, finally, I think I’ve drawn a bead on it. So!

Regardless of their political orientation, most people can admit that:

a) sexism exists as a part of human culture; and

b) has done so for thousands of years.

Even people who insist that our current, enlightened society is sexism-free can usually admit that, once upon a time, things were otherwise, and that this has been true for the vast majority – if not all of – human history. So, following on from this logic, any SFF novel set in either:

a) a fictional society whose culture is modeled on that of a historical civilisation; or

b) a future society whose culture is modeled on that of either a present or historical civilisation

will, unless the author actively chooses otherwise, incorporate certain aspects of real-world culture into the narrative by default. These defaults are many and varied, but the one I want to talk about is sexism. Thus: because most readers, either consciously or unconsciously, expect a certain level of sexism to exist in every society – even fictional ones – authors can infer sexism as a cultural default without ever needing to explain or address it. This leads to the formation and propagation of certain tropes, stereotypes and archetypes whose existence and validity are fundamentally dependent on the narrative presence of sexism generally; and more specifically, given the overwhelming number of fantasy novels set in a sort of idealised, white, medieval Europe, on a grossly oversimplified and homogenized concept of medieval gender roles. Some examples of this are:

  • The Spirited Woman Married Off Against Her Will To An Ugly Man She Doesn’t Love;
  • The Lone And Therefore Exceptional Woman Warrior In A Culture Of Male Warriors;
  • The Widowed Queen Fighting To Keep Her Throne Against An All-Male Cast Of Contenders;
  • The Woman Who Runs Away Rather Than Be Married Off Against Her Will But Who Then Needs Rescuing From Worldly Perils;
  • The Woman Whose Love Of Books And Scholarship Is Exceptional And Odd And Therefore Deemed Socially Awkward;
  • The Unmarried Woman Who Is Happy Being Unmarried And Therefore Considered An Oddity;
  • The Unmarried Woman Who Was Forbidden To Marry The Man She Loved And Is Therefore Sad And Unfulfilled;
  • The Woman Who Ran Away To Marry The Man Forbidden To Her And Who Is Now A Social Pariah;
  • The Penniless Woman Who Needs To Be Rescued From Penury As Her Gender Prevents Her From Working;
  • The Girl Forced To Dress As A Boy In Order To Live Out Her Socially Unacceptable Dreams;
  • The Adventurous Daughter Whose Parents Let Her Run Free But Threaten Her With Marriage Should She Fail;
  • The Female Scholar/Magician Trying To Make It In A Largely Male World; and
  • The Lone Female Soldier/Technician/Magician/Scholar Whose Male Colleagues Don’t Take Her Seriously.

And so on.

Now: as per the existence of sexism in the real world both historically and currently, I’m not trying to suggest that any of the above tropes are unrealistic; nor am I suggesting they should be avoided at all costs, or that they’re inherently bad, or anything like that. What I am saying, though, is that these are all comparatively common tropes, and that, even lacking specific details of the stories in which they appear, it’s still obvious that, of necessity, they all must involve societies in which sexism plays a part. What’s more, because these examples all corroborate easily with a familiar sexist framework – that is, sexism against women in a Western/European setting – they don’t require much explanation. In fact, unless the story is actively trying to write an original culture or to tweak an existing one in ways that are plot-relevant, most readers are likely to consider any actual declaration of women are oppressed for these reasons to be not only redundant, but insulting – because obviously, we already know how it works! So if I pick up a novel and learn in the first chapter that the heroine is being pressured into marriage by her father, I don’t need to ask why, and chances are the author won’t bother to tell me. Certainly, the chances of the actual plot involving a push for social justice – a sort of SFF suffragettism, if you will – are slim to none. All I’m meant to infer that sexism exists, that the female characters will be hindered accordingly, and that otherwise I should just get on with the story.

And most of the time, the author takes it no further. We are left with sexism as a background detail: one which is used to justify the plight or origins of particular female characters and the total absence of others, but which is never actually addressed. Which, in instances where the protagonist is male, or where the majority of the cast is male, leaves us instantly with a screaming, red-faced anachronism: where are the actual sexists? Why, if sexism in this society is so deep-seated, are the heroes so unusually enlightened? Here is why; I will tell you the secret. Because we are meant to like them. Funnily enough, most authors have cottoned on to the fact that writing openly sexist heroes is less heroic than it is disgusting; that it’s sort of difficult to hail Weapons McFighty, Trueking Noob and Roamer Nomadson as the exalted Lords of Awesome when they’ve spent the majority of the book acting like entitled jerks.

Except, here’s the other secret: this is completely untrue.  Offhand, I could name you half a dozen fantasy novels where open, narratively-acknowledged sexism on behalf of the characters has neither prevented the book from being excellent nor the hero from being heroic. True, it’s made them more complex (gasp!) and probably less likable, but it’s also made them more human, forced the reader to actually think about sexism, and tied the characterisation to the worldbuilding in a realistic and consistent way.

This is not the only way to address the presence of default sexism. You can, for instance, construct interesting and believable histories for your male characters which explain their unusual sense of equality – provided that you also allow the women to find it unusual, rather than just taking it for granted. You can follow sexism to some of its natural conclusions rather than focusing exclusively on those few exceptional women who’ve avoided it, such that your characters – and, by extension, the audience – are forced to view it as more than just an inevitable background detail. Then again, you could avoid writing default sexism in the first place by actually considering how gender roles work in your story, building a cultural, social and historical setting that usurps the expectations of the reader. You could write an equal society, or one whose inequalities are unusual; you could write a typically sexist society, but make sexism a major narrative focus. Lots of different ways to explore the topic!

But just using sexism as a default while simultaneously including characters whose ambivalence to, distance from or disconnect with the problem only serves to diminish its impact and make it a background issue? That makes you not only a lazy, unoriginal writer, but one who actually perpetuates sexism by training the reader to take its presence for granted: to refrain from so much as questioning or calling it out, let alone showing its worst consequences, because that’s just how things work, and anyway women’s issues are boring.

And this is my problem, the thing that underlies all the beefs I have right now with UF and YA and dystopias in particular, but also with a bunch of other things in general: the simple fact that too many authors shrink away from acknowledging the default sexism of their settings when everything in their stories suggests its relevance. I am not asking you to use your writing as a vehicle for feminist discourse – actually, no, wait, I sort of am, if by feminist discourse you mean not letting sexism pass without comment, which is also weirdly synonymous with being a decent human. I just want you to admit that this is a problem, and that perhaps making it a background detail without any sort of commentary beyond ‘Oh my female character was being oppressed but now she’s escaped or been rescued, so that’s cool,’ is, you know, unhelpful.

For instance! Are you:

  • Writing a story where your heroine is either the lone woman in her field or one of an elite few ladies? Then tell me why! If she’s battling uphill against an entrenched culture of sexism, show it to us – don’t just rely on inference. Fighting sexism in the workplace is hard enough when you’re an office temp, let alone fighting manticores or saving the world! And if there’s no culture of sexism, then why are there so few ladies? Were lots of them killed off in a major battle? Is the job itself actually considered low-status in a context where women tend to hold higher-status positions? Or did you just default to a male majority because that’s how the world often looks and you didn’t actually think about it, even though you’re trying to write about an institution that prizes equality?
  • Writing a story where, due to some stupid quirk of magical biology, the female of the species is much rarer than the male, so that all the guys fight over her and go swoony for her lady-originating specialness?  Here’s an idea: don’t. I am truly, thoroughly sick of this trope. If I happen across one more story where there’s a bajillion boy-werewolves, boy-vampires, boy-magicians or whatever and then lo and behold, a lady werewolf-vampire-magician shows up and OMG SHE’S THE ONLY GIRL BECAUSE REASONS, LET’S FIGHT!, I will SET THE BOOK ON FIRE. To me, this is the most toxic, awful form of default sexism because it builds into biology the idea that girls must either be unspecial and irrelevant or special and put on a pedestal while simultaneously providing an excuse to perpetuate all the very worst gender stereotypes (New Special Girl Resented By Special And Unspecial Girls Alike,  Boys Fighting Over Potential Mates Ladies In A Way That’s Meant To Be Hot, Hierarchy And Sexism Are How Our Society Work So Deal With It) as a species-based culture. Plus and also, this is doubly ridiculous because healthy animal populations produce an equal number of males and females; when human populations end up with more men that women, it’s invariably because sexist cultures encourage sex-selective abortions and female infanticide. So not only does it make no biological sense, it also ends up taking some of the very worst aspects of real-world sexism and using it to justify sexy romance plots. Which, I’m sorry, no.
  • Writing a story where women’s bodies and sexuality are policed, reproduction is exalted and all the hallmarks of deeply coercive sexism apply? Then actually call it sexism! Show the consequences! Or at least, show the indoctrination! Explain how the system is maintained, how it came into being, and why people believe it! Show what happens to LBGTQ people! Don’t be afraid to write radical characters! These last two are particularly important: I am getting massively tired of sexually coercive dystopias whose protagonists are always straight people in love, and whose rebellion therefore stems wholly from not being free to choose each other, rather than from the fact that, you know, they’re living in a dystopia based around eugenics, enforced heterosexuality and state-sanctioned rape. Romance is great and all, but if you’ve built a setting founded on sexual atrocities, then glossing over them because it detracts from the romance is sort of… atrocious.

And so on.

Sexism is not the only social default thus applied – racism and homophobia continue to crop up in SFF for much the same reasons. Default sexism might well be more common, but only because the exclusion of POC/LGBTQ characters from so many SFF works means that problems of race and homophobia are even more deep-seated in the real world than problems of sexism, making it harder for those conversations to be had in reference to fictional works from which they’re too often erased. Women are everywhere – it’s hard to ignore us completely – but thoughtless authors can and do whitewash and straightwash their stories without any conscious thought, simply because it never occurs to them to do otherwise. Which is, I think, somehow more terrible than if they’d made an active decision. The freedom to  ignore the relevance of intersectionality is just another form of privilege, and arguably one more vicious than benign. Remember: if your equality looks homogeneous, then it’s probably not equality.

In a nutshell, then:  I am sick of stories that pay lip-service to equality (sexism exists, and is bad) while actively working against its principles (but it’s boring, so let’s get over it). More importantly, I am sick of this process being so much in the way of a default setting that we’ve stopped even questioning it – making it a hidden process rather than something overt. In the immortal words of Caitlin Moran:

These days, a plethora of shitty attitudes to women have become diffuse, indistinct or almost entirely concealed. Fighting them feels like trying to combat a mouldy, mildew smell in the hallway, using only a breadknife. Because – like racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia – modern sexism has become cunning. Sly. Codified. In the same way a closet racist would never dream of openly saying ‘nigger’ but might make a pointed reference to someone black having a natural rhythm, or liking fried chicken, so a closet misogynist has a vast array of words, comments, phrases and attitudes that they can employ to subtly put a woman down, or disconcert her, but without it being immediately apparent that that is what they are actually doing….

It’s difficult to see the glass ceiling because it’s made of glass. What we need is for more birds to fly above it and shit all over it, so we can see it properly.

Nothing is perfect. We all loved flawed things, and sometimes we love the flaws themselves as well as the things despite them. This does not stop us from taking personal offence when people not-us find flaws in our things, particularly when these aren’t flaws we’ve ever noticed ourselves, and especially when the flaws are so offensive to our morals and aesthetics that, if we acknowledged their existence, we’d feel obligated to stop liking the thing all together.

Which is, basically, why most people don’t like to be told that a thing they love is sexist or racist or homophobic in a particular way: because it creates an instantaneous and enormous sense of fury and guilt and betrayal. Sometimes, these emotions are rightly directed towards the people who made the things that way, but more often than not, we shoot the messenger. Dammit, I washappy liking my thing, and now you’ve ruined it for me! Or, worst of all, they deny the flaw and attack the flaw-finder, following a rage-logic that works roughly like this:

– I do not like racist/sexist/homophobic things; therefore

– nothing I like is racist/sexist/homophobic; because

– if it was, I’d be forced to stop liking it; but

– I can’t just tell myself to stop loving a thing that I love; which means

– that if someone does tell me a thing I love is racist/sexist/homophobic, I must close my ears and ignore them; because

– if they’re right, I’ll be stuck forever loving a terrible thing, and if that has to happen; then

– I’d rather pretend I never knew it was terrible in the first place; because

– ignorance is bliss.

Which, yeah, no.

Look.

You remember that part where everything is flawed? Everything? Even the things we love most? Does this not suggest to you that we ought to critique those things more than others, even – or perhaps especially – because of how we love them, why we love them, the better to know them better? To see if they deserve our love? To see if we’ve chosen wisely?

Because the fact is that sometimes we won’t choose wisely. And that can hurt to admit. The first time someone makes you realise a thing you love is sexist/racist/homophobic, it’s easy to feel like a terrible person. It’s also good that you do, too. Just for a little. Just a bit. Because sexism, racism and homophobia are far more terrible things than anything a flaw-finder ever did to hurt your aesthetic pride; and that feeling of guilt you have when someone points out what you’ve missed? That feeling is how you acknowledge that up until now, you haven’t been paying attention.

The worst thing you can do after this point is avoid all critical discussion of the things you love for fear that other, unnoticed flaws might be pointed out, and your cosy sense of unflawedness further eroded. That it’s too hard to ask questions of the things you love. That you’d rather just take everything at face value, and assume it’s all meant for the best.

Don’t be that person.

Please. Just, don’t.

Instead, accept that the things you love are flawed. That you can revile one aspect of a thing while praising another. That sometimes broken things are broken in interesting ways. That some broken things can be mended, while others were never truly broken in the first place.

And that sometimes, it’s the things we love that break our hearts, and that when that happens, we have to let them go.

This post also appeared here.

Ever since Worldcon, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to questions of race, not just in general terms, but with regard to the SF/F community and my place within it, as both a fan and a writer. I am white: depending on how expansive a mood I’m in and the context of the conversation, I have also been known to describe myself, cheerfully and with humorous intent, as a mongrel, being as how my immediate ancestry (parents, grandparents and great-grandparents) contains a mix of British, Scottish, Irish, German, Nordic and Mediterranean heritage. By birth, I am Australian, but I’d never consider that to be a race, because – well, it’s not, and I detest those movements which seek to define Australian nationalism and identity on the basis of a “shared” anglocentric background.

I grew up reading tales of history, myths and magic from around the world, which in turn fuelled my passion for fantasy – but though the mythology I read came from Asia, the Pacific, the Middle East, South America and Africa as frequently as from Europe, the Mediterranean, Britain or the Nordic countries, that difference in culture never quite translated to a difference in the range of fantasy on offer. Or at least, in nowhere near the same quantities. For every epic fantasy featuring POC characters and a non-medieval setting, there were twenty that didn’t. But because I was white; because we are all, more or less, egocentric creatures, and especially so when we’re young; because it never occurred to me that this was, in fact, a problem, I didn’t notice. I had blonde hair, pale skin and green eyes – why was it weird that the main characters in the books I read all shared a similar colouring? I won’t try and plead ignorance on the grounds that I lived in an entirely white neighbourhood or went to an entirely white school, because neither of those things are even remotely true. That’s not to say that I lived in a vibrant cacophony of cultural diversity, either. It just means that most of the people I knew were white, my family and their extended circle of friends were white, and I didn’t make any attempt to view these facts in the context of a wider culture, or literature, or anything.

I still had thoughts about race, of course. I was – am – opposed to racism, and whenever any sort of racial/cultural argument broke out among my friends, family or classmates, I was firmly situated on the side of diversity. But that’s as far as it went. Beyond asserting that racism was bad, acknowledging that a terrible history of white domination had caused this to be so and arguing that further instances of same should not be allowed to happen, I did nothing, because nothing in my daily life suggested it was necessary. I had never personally seen anyone being discriminated against on the basis of race or ethnicity, and unless you count the offhand tactlessness of teenagers mimicking the views of talkback radio or apeing Family Guy jokes for comic effect, I had never been exposed to actual racist views in my social circle. What was there left for me to do? Everyone knew racism was a Bad Thing; the idea that it might still be going on was therefore incompatible with reality.  Sexism, though – that, I could get really mad about, because despite the advent of feminism, I still knew what it felt like to be picked on by boys who didn’t like that I could beat them at cricket. Comparing these two views and noting the discrepancies therein didn’t even register as a concept.

Here is a truth of human existence: we do not see the bias in our favour unless we look for it, and we certainly don’t question our own privilege unless told to do so, because most of the time, we don’t even notice it’s there. The danger of being white and brought up to disdain racism is that you start to believe that not being a racist is simply achieved by asserting your lack of racism. You do not inquire further into the matter: why would you, when the bulk of that narrative makes you the historical villain simply by virtue of your skin colour? Isn’t that what racism is meant to avoid? Shouldn’t racial equality apply equally to you, too? Isn’t it enough that you can walk down the street, being white and not feeling superior about it?

No.

No.

No.

I am not a perfect human being. I can acknowledge now – as I used not to be able to – that I sometimes have racist thoughts. They are lightning flashes, there and gone: the fear-whispers of the radio man, stored in memory like song lyrics and brought forth by triggers in the surrounding world. They are subconscious assumptions that I have to force myself to notice. They are subtle, and varied, and every time I catch myself in the act, I wince and think, Where did that come from? Why is it there, and how can I stamp it out? It makes me feel like a terrible person, but by acknowledging them, I force myself to realise that not being racist is more than just thinking, I am not racist, therefore I cannot possibly have racist thoughts, which is the most dangerous default of all.

A personal tipping point was  M. Night Shyamalan’s Avatar: The Last Airbender, and the racefail controversy which surrounded it. Not having seen the animated series, and being one of the minority who tends to like Shyamalan’s work, I reviewed the film in a fashion which was, overall, positive. But in doing so, I had to think about race more closely than I ever had before. What it boiled down to was this: I enjoyed watching the film, and did not like the idea that the reason I’d done so was an innate lack of racial sensitivity. Undeniably, the racefail issue was there, and a fascinating one to discuss – I’d known about it long before heading into the cinema. So what did it say about me, that I could still like something I knew was an act of whitewashing? I wrestled with that question for months after I wrote my review. I tried to find a way to reconcile my enjoyment with the film’s failings in a way that didn’t make me feel like a despicable person, and couldn’t. At the same time, I started watching the animated series, which – apart from being a million times better – showed me how the characters were meant to look. And that’s when it hit me: the real reason I hadn’t been outraged by the film was the expectation – the assumption – that characters in stories would look like me. Without having seen the series, I had no expectations for the actors, and was therefore content to fall back on a default social setting. But ever since I finished watching the series, I look at stills from the film and think, wrong.

Since then, I’ve come to realise – or to remember, rather – that it’s perfectly possible to like some aspects of a story, but not all, and to argue vehemently against what distresses us for the sake of making the good things even better by the future absence of suck. Just yesterday, I finished reading The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle, and though I love his easy writing style and the imaginative storytelling, every piece of era-centric sexist, racist commentary made me want to hurl the book at the wall. Tonight, by contrast, I’ve been reading the blog of the wonderful N. K. Jemisin, whose brilliant novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, I devoured late last week. Specifically, I’ve been reading this post on racism, and this post on comforting dystopias, and they are, in tandem, the reason I sat down to blog my own piece tonight. Because what I’m coming to realise is that being white and well-off  is like living in a bubble, and that racism – and sexism, and homophobia, and all those other terrible creeds and isms – are like a raging river on which you float, unaffected. And if none of the river’s attendant perils threaten you personally – if you are not really interested in what goes on beneath your feet – then you will never notice the un-bubbled masses dashed against the rocks; or see the snares which threaten so many others; or worry about a shifting sandbank changing the course of the river; or spare a thought for those who drown, unable to fight the current. And even if you inflate your bubble with a spirit of kinship, love and charity, without that further awareness, you will be a lesser person than might otherwise be the case.

I had so much more I wanted to say, but it’s late now, and doing all those extra thoughts justice would take more energy than I currently possess. Instead, I’ll say this: think about the stories you encounter. Think about the things you don’t question. Ask if believing a thing is the same as embracing it actively. It’s hard to change yourself, true – but less difficult than admitting that you need to change at all.

Look: I have issues with the whole high school thing.

These issues are wide-ranging. They involve mundane, unintelligent and generally backward curricula, antiquated teaching methodologies, the negligent pay scales for teachers, the lack of reward and prestige for education as a profession, the bastardisation of learning into something that is neither relevant to grades nor recommended that teachers embrace in their own lives, the structure of a system that creates year levels on the basis of age rather than ability, the general social malaise of throwing a whole bunch of teenagers in the same deep pool and yelling SWIM!, the generational incomprehension of techonological and social media as an advanced medium of bullying –

OK. I could go on.

You get that.

But here’s the thing:

High school fucking sucks, man.

We all know it.

Every teenager knows it.

Most adults with actual memories of their high school years, no matter how rosy-lensed, can acknowledge it.

And yet our ability to change that system? Even in the smallest ways?

Is seemingly non-existent.

I have cared about the shitness of high school since I was thirteen. That was eleven damn years ago, and I am still howling into a void. In abstract, it should help my case that so many things are so obviously wrong with the system. In the Land of Government and Educational Bureaucracy, however, that’s actually a massive hindrance, because in a society where ripping a major institution down, salting the earth and building afresh is less an option than it is political suicide, there’s no obvious starting point for reform.

And so people do next to nothing.

Because it’s easy.

Because there’s no viable mechanism in place for doing more.

Because optimism with regard to educational reform is seen as naivety.

Because making things better is too fucking hard.

Well, you know what? I’m sick of that excuse.

I am sick of people whose jobs it supposedly is to support and create a culture of knowledge saying that teenagers and their problems are just too hard; that poverty, cruetly, violence and bullying are just too hard; that creating curricula that are relevant, engaging and intelligent is just too hard; that basically doing anything with anyone between the ages of twelve and nineteen that might be of any use to their future selves or lives beyond the most basic social interactions, arithmetic and language skills – and sometimes not even that – is too hard; that spending money on schools and technology is too hard; that talking to actual teenagers about the circumstances of their education is not only too hard, but impossible, because they can’t be trusted to tell the truth, and everyone knows they just hate high school anyway.

Well, here’s a goddam radical thought: maybe high school is worth hating.

I am sick of homophobia and bullying.

I am sick of a system that seems to be based entirely on Lord of the Flies being a valid basis for social hierarchy.

Years of insomnia. Years of random cruetly, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, violence and ignorance. Years of hearing that at some point, every bright, funny, clever or caring person of my acquaintence had been found in the garage with a noose around their neck, standing on a chair and trying to knock themselves out by sniffing petrol fumes so they wouldn’t feel their hyoid break, or cutting themselves with scissors because it was the only sort of pain they could control, or drinking themselves insensible and weeping on school nights because they couldn’t function otherwise, or taking pills and curling up in the dark like Sylvia Plath, or walking along the edge of cliffs and daring themselves to jump off, or burrowing down inside themselves because it hurt like fury, like glass in the heart, and even the other downtrodden would mock them as protection against further mockery themselves. Years of waking up with less right to sick days than an underpaid temp worker, struggling through depression, illness, fear and uncertainty because you’d get a black mark if you dared show up without a doctor’s certificate, and nobody there to point out that colleges don’t give a flying fuck for your attendance record; that at the end of the day, it’s just a piece of laminated cardboard your parents keep in the attic, and not the be-all, end-all of your academic existence.

No. Fuck that noise, and fuck it sideways.

High school students of the world: you are not prisoners. You are not stupid. You have rights. You have opinions. You know what you feel. The rest of us have either forgotten or are in the process of forgetting, because where you are now? It’s about survival. Once you’re out of the jungle, you don’t go wading back in to fight the tigers and tame the lantana. But that’s why those things persist. You get out, and you’re safe, so you forget. You see the little tweaks and changes on the news, and you forget how bad it really was. You grow up. You start to doubt your teenage intelligence. You wonder if it was just because you were seventeen and an idiot that you hated your creepy geography teacher, the one who knocked the girls’ pens off their desks so he could peek down their shirts when they bent over to pick them up, or that you couldn’t find any practical or intellectual application for what you were asked to do, or that nobody would listen to you or had the power to do anything when you told them you were depressed or being bullied.

Fuck that.

Speak up.

Speak up, because your voices are the ones that matter.

All the debate about schools, about curricula, about subjects and bullying and sex and homophobia and ignorance and bad teaching – all of it affects you. More than anyone else, it affects you. But you are being left out, because you are students, and cannot be trusted to have intelligent opinions. Like prisoners, it is assumed that your sole goal is escape. Let’s slide right by the point where that comparison means many adults subconsciously think of schools and jails as being fundamentally the same, necessary-but-evil types of correctional institution. Yes, lots of teenagers are wankers. I know it, and so do you! If that weren’t true, then bullying wouldn’t be a problem. We would live in a candy-cane world of pixies and chocolate, and ride unicorns to school. Being a teenager doesn’t make you automatically right, either. We’re all still learning about life, after all. Personally, I maintain that any person who thinks they’ve reached a point where learning has become optional is (a) deluded and (b) most probably (see above) a wanker.

But here’s the secret: a lot of adults are wankers and/or wrong, too, and many of them have forgotten what it’s like to be a teenager. Perhaps more importantly, they have never had your teenage experience, and are therefore categorically unable to learn from it. There are also good adults in the world – adults who care, and try, and are nonetheless thwarted by a system that desires they do neither – and those adults deserve to be rewarded. But that cannot happen unless you stand up and make your opinions known.

So: right here, right now. Stand up.

This is what the internet is for.

Read. Learn. Protest. Rebel. Think. Question. Argue. Care.

The future is yours, and unless you do something about it? Continued suckage is a definite option.

Be clever. Be subervise. Be creative.

Fight back.

Not on their terms.

But on yours.

And win.