Posts Tagged ‘Inequality’

Last week, Joe Abercrombie wrote a lengthy post in defence of grimdark fantasy, a stance which should come as no shock whatsoever to anyone familiar with his books. (Which, for the record, I’ve read and enjoyed, albeit with reservations.) The pro/con debate over gritty SFF is comparatively new, in the sense that its status as a distinct subgenre is comparatively new, but not so lacking in history that we haven’t already built up a fairly substantial archive of dissenting opinions. What struck me forcefully about Abercrombie’s essay, however, was his failure to acknowledge, let alone address, a key aspect of the debate, viz: the ways in which grittiness is racially, sexually and culturally political, and whether or not those elements can ever be usefully disentangled from anything else the concept has to offer.

“Portraying your fantasy world in a way that’s like our world?” Abercrombie asks. “That’s only honesty.”¬†And that’s often a fair point to make, when it comes to fantasy. But I find it extremely telling that while he goes on to apply this rule to the presence of death, drugs, sex, swearing, bad behaviour and excrement, he stops short of parsing its relevance to the default inclusion of sexism, racism and other such problematic behaviours in grimdark, crapsack worlds. Or, to put it another way: if your goal in writing gritty SFF is to create what you perceive to be an honest, albeit fantastic version of reality – and more, one where acknowledging the darker aspects of human nature takes precedence – then the likelihood is that you’ll end up writing victimised and/or damaged women, sexist and homophobic social structures, racist characters and, as a likely corollary, racist stereotypes as automatic defaults;¬†which means, in turn, that you run an extremely high risk of excluding even the possibility of undamaged, powerful women, LGBTQ and/or POC characters from the outset, because you’ve already decided that¬†such people are fundamentally unrealistic. ¬†¬†¬†

Not unsurprisingly, therefore, many SFF readers – especially those who are female, POC and/or LGBTQ – are going to object to your definition of reality, not just as you’ve elected to apply it in an SFFnal context, but as an effective commentary on them, personally: because when you contend that realistic worldbuilding requires the inclusion of certain specific inequalities in order to count as realistic, you’re simultaneously asserting that such inequalities are inherent to reality – that a story cannot be honest, or your characters believably human, if there aren’t mechanisms in place to keep women oppressed, POC othered and LGBTQ persons invisible.

But the thing is, because such mechanisms are already so entrenched as narrative defaults when it comes to SFF worldbuilding, it’s easy to give them a pass – or at least, to deny their increased relevance – in the case of grimdark stories. Because if, as Abercrombie’s post implies, the grim¬†in grimdark comes only from the presence of graphic violence, full-on sex, drugs, swearing, disease and character death, then it should still be possible to write grimdark stories that lack rape, domestic violence, racism and homophobia, and which feature protagonists who are neither straight, predominently white men nor the ultimate victims of same. And yet, overwhelmingly, that is what grimdark consists of: because somewhere along the line, the majority of its authors have assumed that “grittiness” as a concept is necessarily synonymous with the reinforcement of familiar inequalities.

Please note my use of that word,¬†familiar, as¬†it’s the lynchpin of my argument: that by assuming current and historical expressions of bigotry, bias and social inequality to be universal and exclusive expressions of bigotry, bias and social inequality, grimdark stories are, more often than not, reinforcing specific inequalities as inevitable and thereby serving to perpetuate them further. Which is why, in grimdark, it’s not just graphic sex, but the graphic rape or assault of women by men, or sex which objectifies women; it’s not just swearing, but swearing which derives its offensiveness from treating women’s bodies, habits and gender as undesirable, or which reinforces racism and homophobia; it’s not just violence, but violence against the othered.¬†

Writing recently about Lincoln, Aaron Bady had this to say on the subject of gritty cinema (my emphasis):

First and foremost, it uses a realist aesthetic to make it seem like a compromising cynicism is¬†realistic. Form becomes content: it shows us the world as it ‚Äúreally‚ÄĚ is by adding in the grit and grain and grime that demonstrate that the image has not being airbrushed, cleaned up, or glossed over, and this artificial lack of artifice signifies as reality… They don‚Äôt mean ‚Äúaccuracy,‚ÄĚ because that‚Äôs not something most people could judge; they mean un-glamorized, un-romanticized, dark… Our field of view is claustrophobic and drab; we are shown a political arena without sentiment or nostalgic glow. That‚Äôs how we know we‚Äôre seeing the ‚Äúreal‚ÄĚ thing.

 

But, of course, we‚Äôre not. We‚Äôre just seeing a movie whose claim to objective accuracy is no less artificial than the filters by which an instagram takes on the nostalgic glow of a past that was never as overexposed and warm as it has become in retrospect. And when we take ‚Äúgritty‚ÄĚ for ‚Äúrealism,‚ÄĚ another kind of ‚Äúrealism‚ÄĚ gets quietly implied and imposed: the¬†capitalist realism¬†by which ideals become impossible and the only way things can get done is through compromise and strategic surrender. Anti-romanticism is all the more ideological because it pretends to have no ideology, to be the ‚Äúplain truth‚ÄĚ that demonstrates the falsity of romantic visions.¬†

 

Which is where grimdark tends to fall down for me, and why eliding the genre’s political dimensions is especially problematic: grittiness is only a selective view of reality, not the whole picture. Yes, there’s pain and despair and suffering, but not exclusively, and when you make grit a synonym for realism – when you make an active, narrative decision to privilege specific, familiar types of grimness as universals – then you’re not just denying the fullness of reality; you’re promoting a version of it that’s inherently hostile to the personhood and interests of the majority of people on the planet. (And in that sense, it doesn’t seem irrelevant that the bulk of gritty, grimdark writers, especially those who self-identify as such, are straight, white men.)

Human beings are flawed, and frequently terrible. We are capable of horrific acts; of racism, sexism, homophobia, and countless acts of violence, discrimination and ignorance. But there are still degrees of flawedness, such that a story which fails to acknowledge our worst aspects is no less “realistic” than one which portrays them as the be-all, end-all of our existence. There’s nothing wrong with wanting realism in your fantasy – most readers demand it to some extent – but that doesn’t mean we’ve all agreed on what realism in fantasy is. It’s a mistake to assume that your preferred flavour of honesty is the only legitimate one; or, just as importantly, the most legitimate one. ¬†¬†

To summarise the problem of committing to this familiar idea of grittiness, then:

If your idea of ‘grittiness’ includes misogyny (for instance), it’s more or less inevitable that your female characters will not only encounter systematic sexism, but necessarily be scarred by it,¬†because if it were possible for them to remain unscathed by such an integral aspect of your preordained notion of grittiness,¬†then¬†by the rubric of gritty = honest, they would be unrealistic characters. Which means that, with the best will in the world, you’ve committed from the outset to writing women whose lives and selves are damaged by men – and while, as a female reader, I don’t object to encountering such characters, I do object to the assumption that these are the only female characters you can realistically write.¬†

Grittiness has its place in fiction; as do representations of existing inequalities. But when we forget to examine why we think certain abuses are inevitable, or assume their universality – when we write about a particular prejudice, not to question, subvert or redefine it, but to confirm it as an inevitable, even integral aspect of human nature – then we’re not being realistic, but selective in our portrayal and understanding of reality. ¬†

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.

One of my favourite things to do in the shower (and don’t you wish more sentences started that way?) is to rake my fingernails over my face and slough off the wet, dead skin. Reasons for this include, but are not limited to: because I am deeply weird; because it feels nice; and because it keeps my complexion pretty. Leaving aside the first point as both an inevitability of my existence and a perennial lost cause (I also collect hats!), the latter two motives combine to form a habit which is both satisfying and, insofar as I can tell, cleansing. And lest you be disturbed by the image of long, sharp, manicured talons being gouged down my rosy cheeks, please bear in mind that I am, in fact, possessed of the shortest, bluntest nails in Christendom. Seriously. They are messed up.

There’s a point to all of this. Honest. Just bear with me.

Last weekend, my husband and I went on a picnic, taking advantage of what has thus far been one of Scotland’s four genuinely sunny summer days. Much to my surprise, this actually resulted in a light sunburn, such that I’ve been gently peeling all week. Today’s nail-enabled exfoliations therefore took longer than usual, which afforded me time to wonder:¬†Do other people do this, too? Did I start doing it because it felt nice, or because it improves my appearance? And if it didn’t feel nice, would I still do it to look pretty? And that made me think about all the other things I do to maintain myself, and whether they count as active beautification – and that was interesting question.

Because the thing is, I don’t wear makeup. This is not a shorthand to indicate that I only sometimes wear makeup, nor is it a dishonest means of saying that I wear very little makeup, be it regularly or semi-regularly. I mean, quite literally, that I wear no makeup at all. I own one tube of fifteen-year-old lipstick, worn maybe three times between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five, that my mother gave me a decade ago. I wore clear lipstick at my wedding, and nothing more. Twice, female friends have given me party makeovers: once recently for the hell of it, and once as a teenager, when we were dressing up as vampires for a fantasy fancy dress birthday. I certainly experimented with makeup as a young tween, putting on blush and lippy and foundation and¬†eye-shadow¬†that I’d found in my mother’s bathroom cabinet, or else trying those same things at various girls-only sleepover parties, but that never really translated to my actually wearing makeup as an adult. There’s a number of reasons why this might be so – my mother rarely wore makeup herself, I was proudly a tomboy, I was too lazy to bother, I’d rather have spent my pocket-money on books – but the practical upshot is that I’m a grown woman who doesn’t wear any makeup, something which seems to be comparatively unusual.

And what really struck me today – the thing that made me sit down and blog – was the realisation that my decision to avoid makeup was not, in fact, a decision at all, let alone a political one. I never chose a makeup-free existence, because that would imply an actual, active thought process on the matter. I just never bought or wore it, in much the same way that I neither buy nor wear designer clothes: it’s simply something other people do. And that bothers me, because the more I think about the sexism and inequality of our culture and its obsession with unrealistic and frequently negative beauty ideals, the more it feels as though my abstention from makeup should be part of my politics. Which is where the comparison with designer clothes falls down: because while I can postulate a theoretic future, no matter how distant and unlikely, in which I take an active, positive interest in clothes design and the aesthetics and history of fashion (which is, for the purposes of this example, a different creature entirely to the horrific inequalities of the actual fashion industry), I cannot think of a similar future where I’d suddenly take an active, positive interest in wearing makeup. Or, to put it another way: despite the fact that I never decided not to wear makeup for ethical, moral or political reasons, I would nonetheless feel it to be an ethical, moral and political capitulation on my part to start wearing makeup.

That doesn’t seem so irrational, surely? And yet saying so makes me feel horrifically judgmental – a gender traitor, even, for all that I’m trying to make a case in support of women. Because the fact is that most Western women do wear makeup, and for much the same reasons that I scrape the dead skin off my face in the shower: because they enjoy it, and because doing so makes them feel cleaner and prettier than if they didn’t.

And so I ask myself: am I a total¬†hypocrite? After all, I still have a beauty regimen. I exfoliate; I use body wash and a loofah, facial scrub and¬†moisturiser. But I do these things as much in the name of cleanliness as beauty. The nice feeling they give me overlaps, is equivalent to, the sensation of having freshly-washed, non-greasy hair and sweat-free skin. But I also shave my underarms and, when I can be bothered, my legs, which is something different again. There’s nothing innately clean about the idea of hairlessness – our culture ¬†just teaches us to prefer clean-shaven men and women with minimal body hair. And there’s problems with that, because who the hell decided it, and why do most of us do it anyway? But while it makes perfect sense to keep such social¬†imperatives¬†and their malleability in mind, ultimately I don’t foresee a version of the human species wherein we don’t have some beauty norms, and if I were given ultimate control over humanity for a day such that I could forever revoke a particular beautification practice, shaving wouldn’t be it; or at least, not leg/arm/facial shaving, the practice of women removing their pubic hair to effectively recreate the image of prepubescence being considerably more problematic. Anyway: what I’m getting at here, or trying to, is that we adhere to different norms for different reasons, and even though women’s hairlessness is politicised in ways that men’s is not – hairy-legged or unshaven feminist being well-known terms of abuse – the trend ultimately seems to be more in line with the vogue of hairstyles than the application of makeup.

Possibly that’s a false distinction, and I’m very much open to the idea of being wrong: it’s something I’ve thought about before, and something I want to keep considering. But when it comes to sculpting, altering and otherwise emphasising our physical appearance (and ignoring the much more complex issues of body size and type, which is worth myriad other essays in its own right), what ultimately puts me off makeup is the extent to which it conceals and alters our faces. If I shave my legs and arms and crotch (or not); if I cut and colour my hair (or not); if I wear¬†jewelry¬†and pierce my ears (or not); if I paint my nails and get a tattoo (or not), then I am, for whatever reason of preference and aesthetics, changing my physical appearance: I am striving to look different, and regardless of whether I’m doing so to conform to an external standard of beauty, a social standard of beauty or simply to my own tastes – and those three things overlap more often than not – they are changes which serve to emphasise my identity and selfhood, rather than obscure it. Obviously many women – probably most, in fact – feel the same way about makeup: that wearing it serves to emphasise who they are. And I can understand that position; it’s why I’ve bothered writing this piece, because I’m honestly conflicted about where the line is between expressing oneself through physical beautification and objectifying oneself through adherence to (potentially damaging) cultural norms. Perhaps there’s no single solution, after all – maybe the question will never be answerable on anything other than a case-by-case basis; and that’s fine, too.

But makeup doesn’t empower me. The few times I’ve ever put on a face (and isn’t that a telling expression?), it’s made me feel, not beautified, but erased. It feels like compensating for my features, instead of emphasising them; like saying my native self is, if not actually ugly, then insufficient. Bland. Unmemorable. I don’t define myself by my hair or nails, my legs and arms or groin; I don’t consider that dyeing, styling and cutting my hair is anything other than an aesthetic act. But my face is what others see of me, and what I see of myself. It’s where people look when I talk to them; it is how¬†we talk, and the act of acknowledging, even tacitly, that my primary means of expression could benefit from cosmetics, leaves me feeling utterly unbeautiful. And what’s worse, makeup is a considered to be a strictly female domain. Men bathe and exfoliate; they shave and wax their body hair; they use dyes and moisturisers and hair gel and even nail polish – and yes, it’s still more common for women to use those things; and yes, some few men do use cosmetics; and yes, they have every right to do so, and more, should be allowed to do so without fear of social reprisals. I know all these things, and they are relevant and important. But knowing them will not convince me that I can find an iota of self-confidence, one ounce of esteem, in the application of tinted animal fats and powdered chemicals to any part of my face – and nor, I think, should it.

I’m not¬†trying to claim superiority over women who wear makeup; far from it. I’m not even trying to suggest that the concept of makeup is innately wrong – only that, for me, it crosses a personal line, and that part of that crossing is exacerbated by the fact that it applies almost entirely to women. The lines between personal aesthetics and social aesthetics will always be blurred, because we’re all creatures of the world in which we’re raised, and even if we can see where the habit of leg-shaving or lipstick comes from, that doesn’t automatically mean we should strive to destroy those practices out of pure contrition. Or, to put it another way: we are all empowered by different things. There will never be a perfect world where none of our customs have problematic consequences, and while I fully believe in our ability to create more and better societies than the one in which we now live, ¬†the way to do that isn’t to issue a new mandate to the masses about what they should and shouldn’t do with their bodies.

But in order for that to happen, we have to think about why we do things, the better to understand – and, in some cases, change – our reasoning. And so I ask: if you do wear makeup most or all of the time, why? Is it habit, or ritual? Does it empower or undermine your sense of self? Does it make you feel happy, or sad, or nothing at all? Does it give you a sense of belonging, or dislocation? Does it feel right or wrong, natural or unnatural? Does it make you feel beautiful or ugly, enhanced or lessened? Do you wear it because you want to, or because you feel you have to?

I already know how I feel. So what about you?