Posts Tagged ‘Women’

The myth of the Fake Geek Girl and her perfidious sister, the Fake Gamer Girl, is like a pervasive popcultural weed. No sooner has the concept been debunked, uprooted and flung on the fire in one quarter than it springs up again in another, its scrappy rootlets osmosing sustenance from the plentiful strata of sexism, misogyny and wilful misunderstanding that underlie most internet forums. Such women, we’re told time and again, are whores and dilettantes: users who care about comics, games, cosplay or whatever other subset of geekdom you’d care to name only insofar as it allows them to manipulate the emotions (and, consequently, wallets) of shy nerdy boys so overwhelmed by the prospect of Actual Live Women that they promptly forget their dignity and roll over like dogs, unaware that the heartless objects of their unrequited affections are collectively giggling behind their perfectly manicured hands and mispronouncing Boba Fett on purpose. It’s like some bizarre high school revenge fantasy where the hot, popular girl who humiliated the geeky boy later tries to ingratiate herself with him for her own nefarious purposes by pretending to like Star Trek, but finds herself thwarted when, instead of falling for her sirenlike charms, he calls her a bitch in front of the whole school and somehow ends up a hero, pronouncing loudly all the while that she wasn’t REALLY hot, anyway.

It is, in short, misogynistic piffle of the highest order; but given our cultural obsession with blaming women for the abuse and sexual harassment they routinely receive, as though the act of simply being female in predominantly or traditionally male spaces is always and inherently an intolerable provocation, I started wondering: how does this logic hold in digital spaces, where one’s biological sex and gender expression are so easily concealed – or even altered – by the click of a button?

To be clear: the assumption that biological sex and gender expression are always obvious IRL – or worse, that they should be obvious – is part of the same problem. Violent, aggressive transphobia doesn’t care whether you’re a white, straight, cisgendered male Redditor who’s cross-dressing as part of a theatre performance or a trans woman of colour out walking with friends: if you don’t look “right” – where “right” means “visually conforming to a narrow gender binary, such that you meet the approval of your antagonists” – then the danger is very real, and frequently fatal. Trans, nonbinary and genderfluid individuals – and particularly those who are poor, women of colour and/or sex workers – are all too commonly the subjects of street harassment, aggression and abuse; hardly a surprising state of affairs, when the idea of a small boy carrying a purse, let alone wearing a feminine Halloween costume, is apparently a sign of the End Times, but the phenomenon is a harrowing indictment of our culture nonetheless. Small wonder, then, that it’s comparatively rare for men to cross-dress IRL in order to experience the male gaze for themselves – as one man recently did in Egypt, to help raise awareness about sexism and street harassment – when the potential consequences could well be more brutal than enlightening.

But online, it’s a different question entirely. Online, you can easily change or conceal your gender identity, whether that means adopting an androgynous username, trying out a professional pseudonym, actively pretending to be a different person on social media, or opting to play a genderswapped character in an MMORPG.  And when it comes to analysing instances of sexual harassment online, what makes these examples so fascinating isn’t just the ease or regularity with which they occur, but the fact that internet users who either present as or are assumed to be female are still unquestioningly treated as women – with all the sexism and social baggage that entails – even when the harassers know how easy it is for the real end-user to lie. That being so, if the men who perpetrate misogyny and sexual harassment online justify their actions on the basis of female provocation – if they believe their targets deserve their scorn, not just for being female, but for being obviously, offensively and stereotypically female – then to what extent do their actions really result, not from any inherent feminine badness, but from confirmation bias, given that they also routinely behave this way towards individuals who are, in fact, male?

Consider, for instance, the experience of Boulet, a male cartoonist who, at one point, posted his work online under a female pseudonym and was stunned by the number of insulting, sexualised and misogynistic comments “she” received, having never experienced the like while posting art under his own name. More recently, a man who pretended to be a woman on OK Cupid – with the aim, ironically enough, of proving to a female friend that online dating was easy for women – quit after only two hours, shocked and disgusted by the deluge of gratuitous, aggressively sexual messages he received. And just last week, a male friend mentioned to me that, since he’s started playing a female character in an online game, he’s been getting hit on by other players – not grossly, but enough that he’s noticed the difference. That exchange prompted me to go on Twitter and ask if any other guys who’d had similar experiences would be willing to share them; what came back, however, was an even more interesting anecdote, wherein a female gamer noted that several men of her acquaintance have preferred to play as – and pretended to be – women in MMORPG environments specifically in order to scam male players.

Which opened up a rather breathtaking possibility: what if the respective myths of the Fake Geek Girl and Fake Gamer Girl are actively being perpetuated, not through the whore-user predations of evil ladies, but because a cynical, sexist subset of male geeks are using stereotypical, strawman portrayals of women to manipulate their peers? If this is what’s happening even some of the time, then not only might it account for the massive dissonance between female experiences in male-dominated gaming spaces (as documented by sites like Fat, Ugly or Slutty and Not In The Kitchen Anymore) and male accounts of the same exchanges, but for the ongoing pervasiveness of the stereotype. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, I mused, to have some data on that!

So I went and did some research. And guess what? There is data.

According to a 2008 study by Zaheer Hussain and Mark D. Griffiths, which was written up in their joint paper, Online Virtual Environments and the Psychology of Gender Swapping, 57% of gamers have played gender-swapped characters in MMORPGs. Broken down further, the statistic revealed that 54% of men had played female characters, while a massive 68% of women had played male characters. (Which suggests the rather interesting possibility that, at least some of the time, you’d be better off assuming that the majority of female characters are, in fact, being played by men, more of which later.) Similarly, when asked to explain their decision to play a character of the opposite gender, there’s a marked difference in the responses given by the men and women surveyed. One woman reported having made a male character “because I was tired of creepy guys hitting on my female characters”, while another noted:

“I make a male character and don’t let anyone know I’m female in real life. It’s interesting how different people treat you when they think you are male”.

By contrast, two men openly admitted to playing female characters in order to get special treatment from other men. “If you make your character a woman, men tend to treat you FAR better,” said one, while another remarked:

“If you play a chick and know what the usual nerd wants to read you will get free items… which in turn I pass them to my other male characters… very simple. Nerd + Boob = Loot.”

Interestingly, a different study from 2003 – published as Online computer gaming: a comparison of adolescent and adult gamers, by M.D. Griffiths, Mark N. O. Davies and Darren Chappell – found that “adolescent gamers were significantly more likely to be male [and] significantly less likely to gender-swap”, with only 45.5% of adolescents gender-swapping compared to 61.8% of adults  – which detail, when put together with the subsequent study, might suggest that the sort of man who plays as a female character in order to manipulate desperate male geeks is more likely to be an adult. However, given that only 6.8% of adolescent gamers surveyed were female, compared to 20.4% of the adults, the reverse could also be true, as implied by the fact that the Nerd + Boob = Loot respondent was only twenty. It’s also worth noting that, according to Nick Yee’s comprehensive 2001 study of Everquest players, The Norrathian Scrolls: A Study of Everquest:

“There was no significant effect in gender of the participant. The gender of the presented character [however] produced a significant effect… and it was found that female characters received significantly more assistance than male characters… It was also found that female players offered significantly less assistance to male characters than male players offered to female characters.”   

In other words, while female players were treating male characters and female characters more or less identically, male players were disproportionately favouring female characters regardless of who was playing them. The same study also noted (my emphasis) that:

“[while] female players who did gender-bend were significantly more likely to do so for gender exploration… male players who did gender-bend were slightly more likely to do so because of in-game advantages

The direction of the gender-bending also produced a significant effect, and it was found the male-to-female gender-bending was significantly more troubling than female-to-male gender-bending…

When asked whether they found their characters of the opposite gender were being treated differently, both male and female players talked about the in-game advantages that came with being a female character… Female characters who have tried playing male characters commented that male characters were treated more seriously, and given more respect.

When asked whether they had learned anything about the opposite gender, many male players talked about what they learned from being constantly harassed by male characters Thus, about 48% of the female characters you meet in the game are actually played by male players.

Let me break that last bit down for you: even though nearly half the female characters were played by men, male players were still not only offering female characters special perks on such an epic scale that many men were playing as women purely to gain advantage over other guys, but the men who were playing male characters were sexually harassing both men AND women in equal measure, so focussed on the character’s gender that they forgot that the player’s might be different. So even though some women who played female characters received spill-over perks on the basis of their presumed gender, so too did many men, who did so, not as the result of playing as their own gender, but through the deliberate manipulation of the sexist assumptions of other male players. The women, meanwhile, despite the “perks” of playing as themselves, were opting for male characters in large numbers in order to avoid the constant sexual harassment of male players.

I could list more studies, but I think I’ve made my point: that the twin myths of the manipulative Fake Geek Girl and Fake Gamer Girl are rooted, not in female cruelty, but in male sexism. By setting female geeks on a pedestal while sexually harassing them as a matter of course, male geeks have created the very system they’re now so angrily raging against: one where many women, deterred by the culture of misogyny in gaming and other digital spaces, either disguise their gender or steer clear altogether, such that their thwarted harassers place a premium on “real” female company. This in turn leads to a manipulative subculture of opportunistic men pretending to be women in order to gain advantage over their male peers, who, somewhat understandably, grow angry and jaded at this treatment. Rather than blaming their troubles on individual users, however, these men generalise their experiences as being typical of all women in geekdom; actual female geeks are attacked, misogyny pervades, and the cycle is complete when women, once again, are driven away by each new wave of sexism.

That being so, the idea that some inherent, toxic femaleness is the ultimate cause of male sexism is proven absurd: it’s all just a misogynistic shell-game of confirmation bias, one where merely seeming female, regardless of one’s actual gender expression, is enough to prompt the sort of harassment, abuse and belittlement that women are told is an unmistakable consequence of our biology and socialisation; a hateful, inherent cocktail that no man should be able to imitate. Misogyny isn’t about what women are, therefore, but about what men perceive women to be. That’s nothing new, of course; the many prejudicial ways culture has of declaring the feminine inferior and the inferior feminine are as old as the proverbial hills. But now, perhaps, with the emergence of digital spaces – when it’s easier than ever for men to assume the unquestioned mantle of female and see what happens next; and when, as a consequence, the inability of sexually interested men online to magically distinguish men from women should surely prove that coquettish, improper female behaviour isn’t the cause of sexual harassment – we can finally start to move forwards. 

I started watching the Hawaii Five-0 remake on LoveFilm Instant in a fit of cynical boredom. I expected it to be hilariously terrible; I expected to get ten, maybe fifteen minutes into the first episode and then give up due to an eyeroll-induced migraine. I expected cheesy dialogue, mediocre to terrible acting from everyone who wasn’t either Daniel Dae Kim or Grace Park, cardboard characterisation and nonexistant plotting, because I mean, seriously: Hawaii Five-0 remake.  Given all my trepidations, it’s a wonder I bothered watching at all. But I also wanted to see some blue skies and tropical, non-Scottish scenery, and so I thought, why not? And yes, the first episode did managed to find not just one, but two different excuses for Grace Park to be scantily clad (first in a bikini, and then by having her strip to her underwear); and yes, the stereotype of the big fat, friendly Hawaiian guy who sells shaved ice and has one toe dipped in the criminal underworld was textbook enough to cause even someone who’s never been to Hawaii to look sideways at it; and yes, the entire premise of all these ludicrously elaborate big-time crimes being committed on a tiny island is blindingly unrealistic; but somehow, I found myself watching a second episode. And a third. And a fourth.

And now, as I’m nearing the end of season one, I’ve realised I kind of love it.

At the most basic level, the characterisation and writing work. The banter between Steve McGarrett and Danny Williams is sharp, lively and highly enjoyable, providing a solid narrative anchor for the total overthetopness of their crime-solving techniques. Their personalities clash in the usual odd-couple way, but due particularly to Scott Caan’s energetic Danny, the partnership never feels stale. The plots are, as predicted, ridiculous, but despite the fact that the comparative smallness of Hawaii makes them feel noticeably more ridiculous than they would if the show were set elsewhere, they’re otherwise no more ridiculous than the usual procedural fair, but with the added bonus that, as the show is shot on location, you get plenty of gorgeously sweeping vistas of oceans and jungles and mountains and rainbows and actual goddamn sunlight thrown in, which tends to make up for it. Daniel Dae Kim’s Chin Ho Kelly and Grace Park’s Kono Kalakaua are both meaty, well-rounded characters who, in a refreshing twist, are allowed to have a racial heritage that matters to them as people without defining them totally or nudging them into caricature territory; and even though all three Five-0 men are afflicted with Suitably Dramatic Manpain Backstories – McGarrett’s dead parents and villain-oriented vendetta; Danny’s complex relationship with his ex-wife and shared custody of his daughter; Chin’s false accusations of corruption and the subsequent implosion of his life – the main team nonetheless manages to interact in a way that feels supportive, human and everyday in all the right ways.

All of which makes the show engaging and fun, yes. But that’s not what I want to talk about.

Because: OK. If you’re like me, and you watch a lot of procedurals, then chances are, you’ve noticed how many of them reflexively try up the stakes and increase emotional investment, not just throughout the series as a whole, but particularly in the first and early episodes, by killing or damselling attractive, young, and overwhelmingly white women. To give some examples, the first episodes of Bones, Castle, House, True Blood, Angel, The Mentalist, Elementary, Sherlock, Supernatural, The Killing and Twin Peaks all involve dead women; and indeed, several of them base their entire premise, or the premise of whole seasons, around female-oriented murders. And that’s not an anomalous sample group, either: if you were to go and check the first episode of every procedural, crime or thriller/suspense oriented show of recent years, then I’d be prepared to lay good money that the vast majority of first deaths, or first imperilments, will be of conventionally attractive young white women. 

It takes Hawaii Five-0 until episode five before they either investigate a woman’s murder or rescue a damsel in distress, while the next focussed damselling of a female character doesn’t happen until episode eleven. And that might seem like an inconsequential thing, but seriously: do you know how rare that is, to be able to watch a procedural show where women aren’t being kidnapped or raped or murdered every three episodes? It doesn’t happen. But not only does Five-0 avoid the trope, it actively subverts it, producing multiple episodes where female characters thought to be victims really aren’t, or where women in vulnerable positions end up showing astonishing strength. And then there’s Kono, who, yes, is the only woman on the team, and a young, attractive one at that. But notwithstanding the events of episode one, she’s never sexualised by her colleagues – by which I mean, she’s not presented as a love interest for any of the men she works with, and again, that shouldn’t be so hard to come by in a TV show, but it is. This is a procedural without sexual chemistry; a show where a young, intelligent, kickass WOC has three older male mentors who actually fucking treat her respectfully, who don’t make comments about how hot she is, whose sex life isn’t the subject of skeevy jokes or subplots, and who gets to be her own person rather than a romantic prop for someone else. There’s even a moment in one of the early episodes where Kono remarks that of course, she’s going to be the one who has to go look after a child-witness, because she’s the woman; and she gets told that no, it’s because you’re the rookie, and that’s what rookies do – and you know what? She actually gets to be a rookie without that being an excuse for lady-incompetence or a cute way to make the sole female character less powerful: because not only do we see her demonstrate extraordinary skill, but we also see her being taught and praised by her mentors, asking for advice and receiving it, making mistakes and learning from them. Kono isn’t a sex object, she’s not a blank space and she’s not an office romance waiting to happen, and off the top of my head, I honestly can’t think of another crime show with a female character like her.

But the most important thing about Five-0 is the diversity. On the downside: so far, there haven’t been many native Hawaiians in the show, which is disappointing. But otherwise – and I cannot stress this enough – even though the main cast is two white guys and two POC, on an episode by episode basis? POC are the majority, and they appear in every possible capacity. And this is so, so significant in terms of modern procedurals, because as with the first-episode dead woman, there’s another toxic pattern common to the oeuvre, namely; that nine times out of ten, the only POC victims we see are either criminals, poor (where poor is coded to imply unworthiness) or possessed of criminal pasts, and even if we’re meant to sympathise with them, that sympathy is always filtered through the bigoted lens of accepting them despite their shady histories and/or poverty. This logic is so pernicious, it frequently extends to main characters, which is why Tara and Lafayette of True Blood, Eric Foreman of House, Kimball Cho of The Mentalist, Alfredo of Elementary, and Javier Esposito of Castle are all revealed to have criminal backgrounds and/or to have struggled out of poverty. POC characters whose personal histories are defined by neither class warfare nor illegal dealings, by contrast, are very seldom presented as victims. When POC are murdered, these stories overwhelmingly whisper to us, it’s not because they’re good people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – it’s because they lived in bad neighbourhoods, because they were poor or had criminal friends or were criminals either recently or at some point in the past; because they were gang members or illegal aliens or some other kind of Other. And as a result, these stories teach us – however subtly, unintentionally or against our better judgement – to feel less sorrow when POC are killed, and especially MOC, who are far more often portrayed as violent bogeymen than sympathetic victims. 

But Five-0 flips all that. We sympathise with illegal immigrants whose only crime is being undocumented; we sympathise with POC victims, and the families of victims, who are monied, middle-class and working class rather than exclusively poor; and, over and over again, we’re invited to identify with MOC, who are portrayed as loving, caring, peaceful, hardworking citizens – and family men, too – with enough regularity that, when we do invariably encounter POC gang members or criminals, their criminality isn’t implied to correlate with their race. Five-0 humanises POC victims in a way that no other procedural I’ve ever encountered does, and not just as a one-off, but as an actual thematic element to the show.

So, yeah. It’s still not perfect – there are other stereotypes in play, there’s zero queer representation, and I’d love it if Kono had a female mentor-character, or even just another woman, to talk to – but especially given how sceptical I was at the outset, Hawaii Five-0 has more or less floored me by casually subverting some of the most pernicious and ubiquitous tropes of the genre while still being joyfully full of explosions and car chases and scenes where Grace Park kicks ass, and it also – oh, joy of joys! – has multiple female and POC writers on staff, which, you know. Makes a damn difference.  (And also, Daniel Dae Kim’s cheekbones? YES.) So if you were on the fence or thinking of giving it a miss, maybe give it a look-see: the first episode isn’t the best, but beyond that, it’s definitely a show worth watching.   

 

Poem/sugar-gem girls

Posted: June 29, 2013 in Fly-By-Night
Tags: , , , ,

under the sun there are girls who wear

their hearts on wrists like confetti chains,

red and flaking away like stars;

.

as children they gave us

.

candy bracelets, necklaces, and we

would beautify ourselves in sweetness,

eat those sugar-gems, those jewels

.

until the hard enamel of girlhood cracked

our teeth like tortoiseshell, biting

down on the moon, our wrists

.

grown fat with blood, as pale or dark

as areolas under the harsh white light

of boys’ eyes, blinding as car headlamps;

.

we were does, our unantlered heads

lowered for combat, raw velvet scraped

into bleeding, butting against those sharp tines

those white knives, and we

.

would buckle at the knees, we would

string ourselves out on candy-wires,

our skin embossed

.

with eat me, drink me down, until

one by one,

they devoured

.

our sugar-gem selves; until

our empty, naked heartstrings bled

.

like cavities.

Sometimes, I read a thing, and despite whatever mixture of rage, incredulity, consternation and general agogness it provokes in me, I nonetheless manage to sit down, muster my thoughts in an orderly fashion, and write out a calm and cogent rebuttal.

Other times, I read a thing, and my entire brain explodes in a symphony of What The Actual Fuck in D Minor. When that happens, I still try to do the whole cogent rebuttal thing, but I don’t always succeed, and the end result usually involves swearing.

This would be one of those others times.

Behold this blog post by author Rod Rees, expressing his thoughts as to whether or not male authors can successfully write female characters. This is an important question, one that can and frequently does lead to interesting discussions about privilege, the male gaze, stereotypes and default narrative settings; that being said, my short answer is always going to be an unequivocal yes. Above and beyond the fact that many of my favourite fictional ladies are male creations, I strongly distrust gender essentialism in all its forms, and the idea that women are inherently different, unknowable creatures, such that we exist beyond the true comprehension of men, falls firmly into that category. So, from the outset, let me be clear: male authors are totally, 100% capable of writing a wide variety of awesome female characters, and many of them frequently do just that.

But Rod Rees, I suspect, is not among them.

The utter gobsmacking cluelessness of his approach to the matter can best be summed up in the following quote:

This brought to mind other criticisms. One woman commented on the scene where Odette (a character I introduced in The Demi-Monde: Spring) was admiring her breasts in a mirror by opining that ‘Women don’t do that!’ I was tempted to reply, ‘Oh, yes they do!’

OK. Look. As I’ve recently had occasion to say elsewhere, women are not a hivemind. No one woman speaks for all women. And obviously, men can have genuine insight into women as individuals that some women might not have. But part of that insight must necessarily come from listening to women, and especially on the topic of women themselves. So when Rees’s response to criticism on the topic of women, by a woman, is a straight-up desire to gainsay her – as though her lived experience of actually being a woman is automatically inferior to his observations of same? That, I’m prepared to say, is the TOTAL FUCKING OPPOSITE of a healthy, helpful attitude.

As for admiring our breasts in the mirror, some women certainly do that. Hell, I’d even go so far as to say it’s something I’ve done myself. But if I’m agreeing with Rees, then what’s the issue? The answer is twofold: first, his reaction to the criticism as outlined above; and second, the text of the actual passage in question, which it just so happens I’ve read. Because there’s a big, honking difference between showing someone doing something normally, and showing someone doing something normal in an exaggerated, problematic fashion – such as, to pick just one example, the difference between the way women actually eat salad, and the way we’re depicted eating salad in a disturbingly large number of advertisements. Which, once again, isn’t to say that no woman in the entire history of human civilisation has ever sat at home, alone, laughing manically while delicately lofting a piece of cos in the direction of her epiglottis – it’s just that, by and large, this isn’t what happens.

This is how Rees describes Odette at the start of The Demi-Monde: Spring:

Examining herself carefully in her looking glass, Odette Aroca decided that she made quite a striking Liberte. That she stood tall and proud… and that the breast she had exposed was full and plump, all meant that she was the living embodiment of the figure shown in Delacroix’s famous painting…

Moreover, the instructions had continued, the robe had to be cut so that the right breast – and it had to be the right breast, the UnScrewed Committee members were devils for detail – was unsheathed. ‘Tempting but Untouchable’ was to be the UnScreweds’ catchphrase, and for a woman like Odette this was good news. She regarded her breasts as her second- and third-best features, having, as was often remarked upon by her admirers – many of her regrettably few admirers – big breasts. But then Odette was a very big woman, so it was natural that she should have breasts to match her great height and her equally great girth. Still, never being one to look a gift horse in the mouth. Odette gave a wiggle and was pleased to see that her untethered breast jiggled in quite a charming fashion. 

Which is to say, he spends near as dammit two whole paragraphs describing her boobs in that telltale way invariably used by people without boobs of their own who are nonetheless possessed of a great interest in the boobs of others, viz: by using the language and phraseology of a sexually interested outsider, as opposed to the language and phraseology of someone who, regardless of their levels of self and sexual confidence, is talking about their own body. Because – and I’m speaking from experience, here – the idea of a woman who thinks that “her untethered breast jiggled in quite a charming fashion” is about seven different shades of ludicrous, never mind the “full and plump” part. More to the point, though: these are descriptions that Rees has actively chosen to incorporate into his narrative. We don’t need to hear a lengthy paean to Odette’s breasts in order to picture her physically, and we certainly don’t need one in order for the story to make sense, but we have them, because Rees likes boobs and thinks that his readers might like them, too. And that’s fine! It is totally cool that Rod Rees likes boobs, and wants to share his boob-love with the world. But that doesn’t mean that Odette’s thoughts about her breasts are any way realistic, and it certainly doesn’t mean that his decision to start the first paragraph of the first chapter with lots of gratuitous boobietalk isn’t going to look like a cheap, sensationalist ploy to grab the attention of male readers.

Returning, then, to Rees’s blog post, I find his apparent belief that male characters are typically the victims of more negative, pervasive stereotyping than female ones to be not only bizarre, but wildly inaccurate. He writes:

Female characters are, in my humble opinion… free of the limitations and pre-conceptions imposed by the curse of stereotype-itis that afflicts male characters. A male lead is beset by doubts and indecision and the appellation ‘weak’ heads his way: a female lead is beset by doubts and indecision and she is seen as ‘sensitive’. A male character panics in the face of adversity and he’s one step away from being labelled ‘a coward’; a female character does the same thing and she thought of as a pragmatist. A male character charges unthinkingly into a perilous situation and he’s ‘high on testosterone’; a female character . . . well, I doubt if she would, females being the smarter half of the h.sapiens double act.

Ignoring the gender essentialism of that last sentence – because benevolent sexism is still sexism, Mr Rees, however much you’d like to believe it’s a complimentary attitude – my reaction to this paragraph can best be summarised as follows: are you fucking KIDDING me? In what universe aren’t female characters subject to rampant stereotyping? In what universe are they stereotyped less than guys? I mean, where do I even begin debunking this bullshit? With the omnipresent damsel in distress trope? With the ubiquity of women in refrigerators? With an in-depth conversation about just how many stories don’t pass the Bechdel test, and why film schools actively teach screenwriters to fail it? I mean, Christ on a fucking BICYCLE – this is 101 stuff, and it is EVERYWHERE. And if Rees honestly thinks that male stereotyping in narrative is a bigger goddamn problem than the stereotyping of women – by which I mean, if he honestly thinks that male stereotyping in narrative is more common, more pernicious, and more deeply intertwined with fucked-up, sexist cultural notions about traditional gender roles than female stereotyping*? Then we have more and bigger problems than the boobie issue.

Such as, for instance, the fact that Rees thinks that learning exclusively about radical feminism is the same thing as being “pretty clued up” about the entirety of feminism:

What I discovered is that like all quasi-religions, Feminism has its zealots: so much so that I found it damned difficult to make HerEticalism more extreme than the world envisaged by the out-there radical-feminists. The upshot of all this reading and pondering was that I thought I was pretty clued up on feminism.

Maybe I was wrong.

Firstly, if you’re going to describe feminism as a “quasi-religion” – as opposed to, you know, the crazy belief that women are people who deserve equal rights, and coincidentally, where the fuck is my MRA bingo card when I need it, oh wait, it’s right here, and lookie! “Feminism is a religion” IS ACTUALLY ON IT, please wait while I headdesk unto infinity – then you have officially forfeited the right to talk about feminism as though you understand it. Period. Secondly, if you are incapable of distinguishing between radical ANYTHING and the non-radical version, then CONGRATULATIONS, YOU FAIL BASIC COMPREHENSION FOREVER. I mean, is it really THAT FUCKING DIFFICULT? He’s got the word radical IN there, and yet is evidently unaware of its role as a descriptive qualifier. Thirdly, why do I feel like the radical feminism Rees is referring to belongs to the same, outdated, Andrea Dworkin school of fringe theories that Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg are so fond of conflating with the movement as a whole? What, did all these old, embittered white guys go to the same seminar on Why Feminism Is Insane back in 1973 and just take it as gospel forever and ever, amen? Do I even want to know the answer to that question?

And then, it gets even worse.

What I found most unsettling about these criticisms was their nugatory nature. My characters were being criticised not for doing what strong, independent women should be doing, but for doing what a section of the readership believes they shouldn’t be doing. Rather than look at the broader attributes/attitudes of a character, it is the minutiae that was being picked over… I am drawn to the Biblical parable about motes and beams and could take this religious analogy further: feminist criticism has many of the features of the theological debates in mediaeval times where being pilloried for heresy turned on the most trivial of deviations from the accepted canon.

Bear in mind, this comment is made in response to a female reader objecting to the fact that one of his female characters described herself  as “a lush thrush with a tight tush”.

Seriously.

Savour that phrase for a moment. It might well be worse than the bit about the jiggling, untethered breasts, but either way, it’s sort of like comparing guano to horseshit, if animal faeces were composed entirely of gross, sexually objectifying language. But, I digress, because Rees has once again missed the point by a margin so epic, it’s like watching a man trying to drive to Dover and ending up in Calais. The issue isn’t with what your female characters are doing – it’s how and why you portray them doing it, and whether or not you’ve stereotyped them horribly in the process. Which, given the fact that Rees is evidently oblivious to the issue of female stereotyping – he even goes on to lament his “troubling suspicion” that feminist critique is trying to “confine female characters in much the same way as male characters have been” – sends up a red flag the size of Neptune about his total inability to recognise and avoid it. (As do his unthinking use of the Big Breast Pride and Omniscient Breasts tropes. For instance.)

Then I reached the penultimate paragraph.

But I have a suspicion that these proscriptions affect female writers as much as they affect male ones. It seems to be a fixture at the SF conventions I’ve attended to have a panel discussion debating why there are so few women writing in the adult SF and fantasy genres. Could it be that the success of female writers in YA fantasy fiction is in part attributable to their young female characters being better able to adhere to this template of the ideal female? Once female writers venture into the more visceral world of adult fiction they find this stereotype doesn’t work and hence struggle. Just a thought.

Let me get this straight: according to Rees, female authors only succeed in writing YA fantasy novels because it’s easy, and that once they try to venture into the “more visceral world of adult fiction”, they “struggle” to move beyond the “stereotype” of non-passive, actively feminist characters – and this is “why there are so few women writing in the adult SF and fantasy genres”?

WHAT. THE. ACTUAL. FUCK.

Here’s an alternate theory: adult SF and fantasy are chock-full of spectacular women writers despite the fact that troglodytic, sexist asshats like Rod Rees think that most of us are incapable of writing grown-up characters due to our Hindering Ladyfeelings. Plus and also? The idea that you graduate to writing adult novels after starting out in YA – or rather, that WOMEN can graduate to writing adult novels after starting out in YA, presumably because men who write about jiggling tits are sculpting literary masterpieces whatever the age of their intended audience – is fucking INSULTING.

And I just. I CANNOT with this fuckery, this I’m-so-enlightened-because-I-have-a-wife-and-daughters, therefore it’s COMPLETELY OK that I sexually objectify my female characters using the grossest language possible, ignore all female criticism of same because I know more about being a woman than women do, write off feminism as a radical religion while claiming to know all about it, and plead total and comprehensive ignorance of even the most basic forms of stereotyping that affect women in narrative, all while positing that the dearth of female writers in my field is due to female incompetence. YES. YOU ARE TRULY A PRINCE AMONG FEMINISTS.

AUGH.

I don't want to live on this planet any more

Angry dome

*Which isn’t to say that male stereotyping isn’t a problem: it is, and it’s rife with problematic gender essentialism, too, particularly around the perpetuation of culturally constructed, restrictive and ultimately toxic notions of masculinity. Sexism in stereotyping cuts both ways, because that’s what sexism does: it hurts everyone, even the people it’s ostensibly meant to benefit. But there’s also a deep imbalance in terms of the scope and ubiquity of the representation afforded to men as opposed to women, and a much greater variety of male portrayals as opposed to female, which is why (for instance) you have Seth Rogan acknowledging the fact that Pineapple Express would never have been made if it were about two girls, and that he wouldn’t have a career if he were female.

30 June 2013, ETA: As of today, Jo Fletcher Books has taken down both Rees’s original post and a post published subsequently wherein Jo Fletcher explained why she’d allowed it to appear in the first place. (In a nutshell: Because Free Speech, I don’t censor my authors even though it’s not something I’d have written myself, which is fine, except that this isn’t what people were objecting to – or at least, not insofar as the decision to publish went – and therefore came across as missing the point. As was explained by several people in comments on that second post, the issue on that count was more to do with the fact that, if you publish something on your company blog, regardless of whether or not You, The Person agree with it, then people are, not unreasonably, going to assume that You, The Organisation does – or at the very least, that your company doesn’t *disagree* enough with the content not to have refrained from publishing it in the first place. Thus: if you publish a sexist piece on the company blog, then while Because Free Speech will certainly explain your personal decision to do so, this explanation is neither synonymous with nor a substitute for an explanation about why you chose to associate your company with sexism – or, more pertinently in this case, with why you’d then be surprised that people were disappointed in you for having done so.)

Anyway. The original blog might be gone, but this being the internet, it lives on in cache and screencap, in which form it can still be found here.

3 July 2013, ETA: With no explanation, both posts are now back up at the Jo Fletcher Books Blog. So, there’s that.

I’m on holiday. I have things to do. I shouldn’t be ranting.

And yet.

Behold this article in The Atlantic, titled: The Secret to Being Both a Writer and a Mother: Have Just One Kid.

I don’t even need to read the damn thing to be furious. You know why, internets? Because, as per fucking always, the assumption here is that women, not men, are the ones who need to realign their lives around having kids. I am yet to see a single fucking article in any publication, ever, about juggling the work/life balance around childrearing with fathers and fatherhood as the focus. And do you know why that is, internets? Because despite every advance towards gender equality we’ve taken in the past few decades, the assumption is still that mothers in heterosexual partnerships both will and should be there to pick up the slack once the babies arrive, so that daddy’s career doesn’t suffer. Outside of Norway, and perhaps a few other places, the overwhelming social default sets paternity leave as optional, brief and something which fathers are praised for taking. Look how modern! Look how progressive! And, yes, they are, and it’s wonderful we’ve even come that far. Neither am I trying to denigrate the physical cost of childbirth or anything like that: having recently had a child myself, I’m in a pretty good position to say that giving birth is something you need time and space to recover from.

No. What I’m objecting to is the idea that only maternal caregiving is important in those early weeks and months; that just letting mum get on with it, alone, while dad goes back to work, is good enough. By which I mean: if people want to choose to do things that way, then more power to them. (After all, it’s what my husband and I are doing.) But I powerfully dislike the fact that the general dearth of paternity leave and our cultural belief in male incompetence/female superiority re childrearing make it very hard to do otherwise, even if mum earns more money and/or has a higher degree of job satisfaction; even if dad really wants to be on hand.

So when I see yet another bloody article that, right from the headline, demands women limit the number of children they have in order to succeed professionally – as though the universal introduction of equally distributed paid maternity and paternity leave, a collective cultural removal of heads from arses on the subject of male caregiving, and the ready availability of affordable childcare are all wholly irrelevant factors in any discussion concerning the impact of motherhood on our literary careers (or careers of any kind, for that matter) – I experience an overwhelming urge to set the writer on fire.

And yes, as it happens: I do have a dog in this fight. I’m an only child, a writer and, as of four months ago, a mother of one. I’ve dealt with a parade of health issues following the birth of my son, including a week’s hospitalisation to deal with a nasty postpartum infection, and as much as I love him to bits, the whole experience has left me extremely gun-shy about the prospect of his ever having a sibling. It’s a question I’m more or less constantly mulling over – so close still to his birth, my intuitive, passionate reaction is never again. (On a tangential note: I swear to fucking dog, the next smiling stranger who either asks me when I’m having another one, tells me it’ll be easier second time round or wistfully wishes they had a dollar for every mother they’d ever met who says they only wanted one child but then had more will be met with SEVERE AND BITING SARCASM. By all means, ask me about my plans, but if your choice of words OPENLY ASSUMES I’ll be having another one BECAUSE LADYREASONS and then you look at me knowingly when I offer a contradiction, like my awareness of my own wants and body and lifeplans is IRRELEVANT when compared to your UNIQUE AWARENESS of the fact that SOME WOMEN HAVE MULTIPLE CHILDREN, then I am going to be seriously displeased. I mean, what is this bullshit? For all you fucking know, I’m desperate to have a second child but can’t, because having the first one left me unable to conceive again or because I can’t afford a second round of IVF. Maybe I’m planning on adopting. Maybe I’m in the throes of post-natal depression, and your words are triggering. Maybe my child was the product of a one night stand. Maybe my partner is abusive. Maybe I didn’t want the first child. Maybe my marriage has just ended. Or maybe everything’s fine, and I’m ready for kid number two. The point being, YOU DON’T KNOW. It is not your fucking business how many children I plan to have, but if you ask me politely, in a way that leaves me open to say ‘just the one, actually’ WITHOUT you offering a smug, I-bet-you’ll-change-your-mind rejoinder afterwards, then I’ll discuss it with you. But Christ on a fucking bicycle, STOP ASSUMING FACTS NOT IN EVIDENCE.)

Ahem.

The point being, I’m new to the parenting gig, and there’s a lot of new things to figure out about it. But in the mean time, I’m still trying to get this whole writing career sorted – and so when I see a headline that basically says, HERE, I HAVE MADE YOUR DECISION FOR YOU: ANOTHER CHILD MEANS YOU CAN’T BE AN AUTHOR, then my overwhelming urge is to FLIP SOME FUCKING TABLES.

So imagine my seething temperament when I read on and found that the actual article, written by one Lauren Sandler, is all about a handful of successful female writers who only had one child, with really only two paragraphs – the first and last, excerpted below – to couch the idea in generic terms. Says Sandler:

“She was not a mom,” writes Sigrid Nunez of Susan Sontag in Sempre Susan. “Every once in a while, noticing how dirty [her son] David’s glasses were, she’d pluck them from his face and wash them at the kitchen sink. I remember thinking it was the only momish thing I ever saw her do.” Did Sontag need to be more “momish”? And if she had been—or if she had more children to drop off with the in-laws or the babysitters—would she have been the same writer? Would we have the legacy of her provocative ideas, in criticism and fiction? The grey-streaked eminence of Sontag aside, how do the rest of us mortals negotiate the balance between selfhood and motherhood? Is stopping at one child the answer, or at least the beginning of one?…

These modern female writers all desired to love deeply and intimately, to challenge themselves, to experiment with permanence, to create something that would outlast them, to never turn away from a human experience. Such are the qualities of motherhood, not “momish”ness—it’s not all nurturing and sacrifice, regardless of how our culture chooses to define and deify the maternal. McCarthy once said in an interview with The Paris Review, “I suppose everyone continues to be interested in the quest for the self, but what you feel when you’re older, I think, is that—how to express this—you really must make the self.” That’s still true today, for parents, writers, and anyone who believes in the business of living.

Which leaves me with two questions: was Sandler herself responsible for the headline? And if not, what provocatively sexist troglodyte  thought it was a good idea? Inasmuch as the article is about anything, it’s about the relationships Susan Sontag, Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick and Joan Didion all had with their (only) children and partners, concluding in the final lines that Sontag’s failure to be ‘momish’ was no such thing; that there is no real contradiction between motherhood and a life of the mind. Which, yeah, great. I already knew that. So why throw in a needless thematic guilt trip – not nearly as prominent in the actual text, but nonetheless implied by both the title and the opening paragraphs – about single children being the way to go?

Because that’s what our culture does: it guilts women. We’re selfish and unnatural if we don’t want children. We’re selfish and overprotective if we only want one (and the child will suffer for lack of sibling contact). We’re broody if we want two or three (and each child will suffer to varying degrees because of the sibling hierarchy). We’re repressed broodmares if we want more than that (and not only are we a drain on society, but each child will suffer for lack of individual attention AND because of their place in the sibling hierarchy). None of this palaver ever affects dads, except to bemoan their lack of parenting acumen in one breath while damning their attempts to acquire it as unmasculine and wimpy in the next, without any apparent sense of irony. (Sexism: cutting both ways and fucking things up for everyone since FOREVER! Fun times.)  And so, we have this article, which for the main part is a rather benign, if brief, examination of several successful female writers who just happened to stop at one child each, but which unfortunately takes the unnecessary step of suggesting that the former might be predicated in some way on the latter.

And apart from anything else – apart from being exhausting and offensive and unnecessary – it’s also just plain wrong; or at the very least, selective beyond any possible usefulness. As author Kameron Hurley pointed out on Twitter, J. K. Rowling has three children, Danielle Steel had nine and Ursula le Guin had four. Pulitzer-winning author Jane Smiley noted in the comments that she herself has three biological and two stepchildren. And off the top of my head, I can think of yet more successful women with children, plural: Kate Elliott has three, Anne McCaffrey had three (one of whom, Todd McCaffrey, has taken over her Pern series), Stephenie Meyer has three, and Suzanne Collins has two. But more importantly, is anyone, anywhere suggesting that Terry Pratchett wouldn’t be so successful if he’d had more than one child? Is anyone clicking their tongues and worrying that Nick Harkaway’s career is over now that he’s a father of two? Does anyone think that Nicholas Sparks’s succession of repetitively mediocre and criminally overhyped novels about dying teenagers having sex in the rain can be blamed on the fact that he has five younglings?

No. And you know why not, internets? Because DOUBLE FUCKING STANDARDS, is why.

/endrant

I shall now return to my holiday.

Warning: some talk of rape, explosive ranting.

As an Australian who now lives in the UK, I’m used to hearing about publications, conventions, writers’ groups, book giveaways and other SFFnal coolness that I can’t actually buy, attend or participate in on account of their being located in or otherwise restricted to the US of A, a country I tend to envisage as one of those freaky undersea fish with a luminous, prey-attracting barbel that lures you in with the promise of democracy and culture and New York, and then savages you with its monstrous teeth, fascism, bigotry, and New York (a city I’ve never visited, but which I nonetheless feel qualified to make jokes about Because Television). What this means in a practical, everyday sense is that, even when certain American things become accessible online in whatever manner, I tend to forget that fact, and so place them in the same mental box of Unattainable And Irrelevant Stuff that contains my failed attempt to learn algebra and the location of our iron. Thus: whenever I see someone talking about the SFWA, I feel a brief surge of enthusiasm – SFF! Writers! Things I like! – that transmutes into apathy the exact instant I remember that, as someone who is neither American nor published in America, I’m ineligible to join. I paid minor attention to the recent presidential electiony-thingy, largely because, as a reader of John Scalzi’s blog, it was sort of hard to miss, but otherwise, both the SFWA and its affiliated bulletin have existed wholly off my radar.

And then I read this. And this. And this. And the article uploaded for comment here – that is to say, the recent piece in the SFWA Bulletin by Mike Resnick and Barry N. Malzberg, two old white guys in their seventies who I’ve never heard of before, but who are evidently horrified by the prospect of Teh Womenz having an opinion about either SFF generally or the SFWA in particular, and especially one that’s critical of them. I managed to get a whole five sentences in before I started bristling, when Resnick said:

In my starving writer days, back in the 1960s and early 1970s, I wrote a couple of hundred words in what we euphemistically call the “adult field”. A lot of us did. You, me, Robert Silverberg, Donald E. Westlake, Lawrence Block, even Marion Zimmer Bradley (a woman). No one ever said we couldn’t, no one ever tried to stop or censor us.

This snippet sets off alarm bells on two counts: that prejudicial ‘even’ before Marion Zimmer Bradley’s name, and the despicably telling (a woman) after it, all put there to tell us that a woman did what we did (even though most women didn’t), so therefore our defence of it is justified. So, let’s be clear: I’m a twentysomthing woman, which means that Resnick and Malzberg aren’t talking to me – they are, instead, complaining about people like me to people like them; which is to say, to themselves, as the whole piece is a dialogue between them. Nonetheless, the fact that I’m the hypothetical subject of their ranting gives me the right of ranty reply. Which I intend to exercise. Vehemently. In detail.

I supplemented that income by editing a quartet of tabloids, like The National Enquirer – only worse. Never got busted, never got censored, never got castigated. Ditto with a trio of men’s magazines I edited.

Pardon me while I laugh hysterically at the idea that working for two of the most lingeringly sexist, misogynistic types of publication, in a position of editorial power, in the fucking seventies, and boasting about how nobody ever called you on your bullshit back then, as though this is somehow proof of the fact that bullshit neither happened nor deserved to be stopped when it did, constitutes an intelligent argument.

[I wrote] the “Tales of the Velvet Comet”, a four book series about an orbiting brothel. Sold it to a lady editor. Never heard a peep of protest from anyone.

Christ on a fucking bicycle. Three paragraphs in, and we’re already dealing with Poe’s Law levels of delusional self-justification. I could make a drinking game about this article: take a shot every time the author deliberately highlights the femaleness of the women he mentions, the better to explain how these ladies never said I was sexist, so clearly their silence at a time when dissent could’ve seriously impacted their careers constitutes an impartial, absolute assessment of the non-offensiveness of my work, as well as speaking declaratively for all women, forever. Plus and also: an orbiting brothel? Seriously? Way to boast about perpetuating a trope that we here in the actual future think is both shitty and overused.

…I wrote The Branch, a rather blasphemous novel about the true Jewish Messiah who shows up about 50 years from now, which perforce had to prove that Jesus was a fraud. No one objected. I even sent copies to Jerry Falwell and Jimmy Swaggart [two ancient televangelists, one now dead]… Apparently neither of them were offended enough to even protest on their radio shows.

Wow. That’s a compelling defence, isn’t it? Two bigoted, Evgangelical rightwingers with probable antisemitic tendencies thought your efforts at debunking Judaism were A-Okay, or at least not utterly blasphemous? One of whom, Swaggart, became infamous for his ‘I Have Sinned’ speech, wherein his deeply hypocritical and sadly repressed dalliances with prostitutes* were brought to light? Yes. Clearly, these are well-adjusted, intelligent men whose failure to criticise the work you sent them unsolicited in a bid to orchestrate some cheap, sensationalist publicity is proof of your possession of an unassailable moral high ground. Do go on.

These days it’s difficult to go to a movie – or even turn on the cable TV – without seeing a bunch of naked bodies and a bunch of blood.

So it’s understandable that I thought the days of censorship were long gone.

Truly, the fact that you can see sexually objectified ladies on The Cable and get your old guy rocks off at the push of a button nowadays is a sign of social progress, while women offering public criticism of your shitty, dinosauric attitudes is exactly the same as an erasure of your civil rights.

Take a look at the cover to a recent edition of The SWFA Bulletin, issue number 200. There’s a warrior woman on it. Not a hell of a lot different from a few hundred warrior women who have graced the covers of our field’s books and magazines ever since C. L. Moore (a woman)

Drink.

created Jirel of Joiry. I think the warrior woman is wearing boots, but [though] it’s pretty dark and shaded in that area, I know she [sic] displaying less flesh than just about any bikini you can see on a beach in the country today.

This is a bit like a modern employer throwing his hands up and saying, ‘Seriously, what’s the problem? I only fired her because she was pregnant! Employers like me have been firing knocked-up broads like her since the 1920s!’ Newsflash, Mr Resnick: the fact that something has a long and prominent history doesn’t make it OK. Plus and also: the fact that your ‘warrior woman’ is displaying only moderately less flesh than a beach babe despite being depicted in the mountains, in a chainmail bikini, in the fucking snowis a textbook example of why we need Women Fighters In Reasonable Armour (and many other things like it). Don’t fucking lie to me: that isn’t armour she’s wearing, and she’s not a warrior woman: she’s a masturbatory fantasy from your misspent youth, and now you’re trying to act as though the past fifty years of equality never actually happened.

A group of younger writers and fans object to her presence on the cover of the Bulletin and they’re making quite a bit of noise about it.

Firstly: it’s not just young people objecting to this fuckery. Go ask some women SFF writers in your age bracket – hell, ask some men with more sense than arrogance. My father’s nearly a decade older than you, and he’d look askance at this idiocy with all the dignified side-eye of his eighty-one years.  And secondly: yes. We are making noise. That’s what fans and writers do – we talk about things. Much like you’re doing now, in fact.

…it was our editor, Jean Rabe (a woman)

Drink.

whose decision it was to run it.

Women are not a goddamn hivemind, Resnick: one does not speak for all. Trotting out your sad string of Ladies Who Liked My Stuff isn’t some magical, argument-melting spell that renders your critics invalid.

It was also Ms Rabe’s request that you and I do a couple of Dialogues (issues #199 and #200) on the history of women in the field. We addressed lady writers in the earlier issue, and lady editors and publishers in the later one.

Drink.

Drink.

And we seem to have offended some members every bit as much as the cover art did.

Why?

By having the temerity to mention that Bea Mahaffey, who edited Other Worlds in the very early 1950s, was beautiful. (Which, according to every man and woman who knew her then, is absolutely true.) After all, we’re talking about an editor, not a pin-up model, so how dare we mention her looks? What business does that have here?

Fucking none, you moron. That is the actual point. We don’t care whether your assessment of her looks was accurate or how many goddamn witnesses you can find to back you up on that, even if we question you separately: have you ever described a male editor as handsome, or dropped in some extra verbage about how Tolkien was a doll? And on the extremely unlikely offchance that you can dig up one op-ed from 1962 where you vaguely referenced, in positive terms, the physical prowess of a young Stephen Donaldson, are you honestly claiming obliviousness to the long-lived and still ubiquitous double standard whereby women’s looks are deemed in some fundamental way to be representative of our competence (or lack thereof), whereas men, even in those rare instances when their appearance is remarked upon, aren’t held to anything even vaguely resembling the same standard?

For example, no-one ever mentioned JFK’s looks, do they?

Well, shit. I guess you are. And I just love how your single male counterexample is President Kennedy – that is to say, the ruler of a country, with all the associated press appearances and media coverage that necessary entails, and a man whose affairs actually impacted on his office, and are therefore materially relevant when discussing him. Yes. That is totally comparable to talking about the bodies of female writers and editors when it has no bearing whatsoever on their contribution to SFF.

So, Barry, just off the top of your head, what’s your opinion… of a writers’ organization that will let me say ‘fuck’ in these pages… but has some members that want to censor the word ‘beautiful’ and the thousandth painting of an absolutely generic warrior woman?

OK, you do understand that there’s a difference between saying ‘referencing her looks was unnecessary, and perhaps inappropriate given your evident obliviousness on the subject of sexism’, and ‘NOBODY IN THIS PUBLICATION SHOULD USE THE WORD BEAUTIFUL IT IS AN UNWORD AND BANNED FOREVER’, right? Nobody is censoring the word ‘beautiful’; we’re simply suggesting you needn’t have used it when you did. Similarly, if I say ‘stop threatening me with that knife’, I’m not saying ‘ban all knives’. I’m saying there’s an important contextual difference between chopping up carrots for dinner and my physical endangerment, and if that’s a distinction you’re either unwilling or unable to make, then I don’t want you anywhere near my kitchen.

Plus and also: the fact that your sexually objectified, ludicrously attired and probably frostbitten warrior woman is here deemed ‘generic’ – that is to say, so commonplace as to be normative – is part of the fucking problem. You know why? An actual warrior would be wearing armour, not a teenage boy’s wet dream of chainmail bikinis. And don’t even think of using Conan as a counterexample here: Conan is a male power fantasy who exists in a world without plate armour or chainmail, and where his lack of clothes therefore makes some species of sense; your covergirl, by contrast, clearly has access to proper protective gear but has, for mysterious reasons attributable only to penis-logic, elected not to wear it.

Let’s see what Malzberg has to say.

The question is whether those who object to Warrior Woman or ‘beautiful’ adjectivally applied to a woman are merely displeased or whether they want repetition censored. That isn’t clear to me and your description of these events leads me to infer that it isn’t clear to you either.

A cogent opinion! Huzzah! Points for Barry!

I don’t like the objections myself, and I find them offensive. Then again… I feel they have the right to complain loudly and often about those two examples… just as you and I have the right to complain loudly and often about what I take to be (dare I use the word) their stupidity.

Fair dues, there. For making actual sense, Malzberg earns himself the right to at least one non-sarcastic response from me.

But then again, if they want to shut us down… no more Woman Warriors and no offensive description of a beautiful woman as beautiful, well then there is a problem.

And here it is: while I can’t speak for everyone (see above re: women have no hivemind), I can say that, personally, I feel incredibly frustrated whenever the word ‘censorship’ is trotted out in these debates, not only because it has very grave and serious connotations that tend to obscure the issue at hand, but because it doesn’t accurately represent the desired outcome. If your actions stem from a problematic perception of women, forbidding those actions without altering your perception would achieve nothing. What we want isn’t for you to sit there, believing exactly as you do now but growing increasingly angry and resentful at being unable to express yourself: we want you to actually see us differently, such that you no longer view your past behaviour as acceptable, and subsequently never do it again.

It’s not censorship we want. It’s a change in your perceptions. Not self-censorship, which implies your original attitudes are simply repressed and waiting to bubble over: actual change, so that when you hear women say ‘please don’t depict us in chainmail bikinis, it’s demeaning and awful and contributes to terrible stereotypes that still demonstrably affect our treatment within SFF communities’, you respond with sympathy and respect.

There are, however, exceptions to this. We most definitely want to censor rape threats and racist slurs, for instance – not only because hate speech is illegal, but because allowing it within SFFnal communities creates unsafe, threatening environments for those of us who are subject to it, while simultaneously sending the message that bullying and abuse are OK. You have not engaged in hate speech here; therefore, we do not want to censor you. We do, however, want you to actually listen to us, and take on board the fact that what you’ve done is regressive and offensive.

What is somewhat disturbing, of course, is the anonymity (at least to me) of the complainers…

Hopefully, then, you’ll appreciate this very non-anonymous response, as well as everything else that’s been said on public blogs and otherwise under real names.

Oh lord, it’s Resnick’s turn again. Brace yourselves.

I went to the local Barnes & Noble superstore and began studying cover art.

And a lot of it abounded in bare, raw, pulsating flesh, totally naked from the neck to the navel. No question about it. It’s there for anyone else to see – and of course, since such displays seem to offend some of our members, to picket.

You know where I found it?

In the romance section. I’d say that just about every other cover shows a man’s bare torso… Clearly these are erotic covers, designed to get a certain readership’s pulse pounding.

As far as I know, no one’s tried to censor the publishers… Not even our moral SFWA crusaders.

Jesus, stop. Mike Resnick is officially banned from using words. Seriously, where the fuck do I even begin deconstructing this hot mess? With the fact that the abundance of bare-skinned cover art is not, in and of itself, proof that said art is desirable, positive, or OK? That’s like saying that because you can find a lot of brutal rape videos on the internet, it’s fine that you made your own brutal rape video in your basement. With the fact that there’s a big fucking difference between depicting sexualised images of both men and women on the covers of stories that are actually about sex, and depicting sexualised images of women alone on the covers of stories that have nothing or little to do with sex, except inasmuch as the male audience is being encouraged to construct objectifying fantasies? With the fact that, actually, there’s a growing movement of romance readers lobbying for different book covers, or who actively critique said covers as ridiculous, offensive, or just plain silly; and that, once you’ve complained about the anonymity of your detractors, you lose the right to make judgements about which movements they do or don’t support? Seeing as how, you know. You don’t actually know who they are?

…consider just how many muscular, near-naked Conan types have graced our covers over the years without nary a voice raised in protest.

*headdesk* He went there. He used The Conan Argument. First, and as stated earlier: Conan is a male fantasy. Objectified women are a male fantasy. Presenting one as the opposite of the other is about as useful as saying steak is the opposite of lamb: you aren’t making a meaningful distinction, and if the issue is trying to feed a vegetarian, you’re not even remotely close to understanding the actual problem. Second, Conan is of the past; your ‘warrior woman’ isn’t. While you might be able to scrounge up one or two recent SFF releases with naked man-torso gleaming on the cover, they’d be a drop in the ocean compared to female objectification in the same timeframe, and when you compare both those things to the constant sexualisation of women elsewhere in society, your ‘warrior woman’ is reinforcing some seriously problematic shit that Conan and his briefly popular bretheren don’t even remotely approach.

Over to you, Barry!

Our Warrior Woman protesters and enemies of the adjective… fall into the category of what Right Wing radio talkers call ‘liberal fascists’, and I cannot disagree with that description… I agree wholly with at least one [radio talker], Sean Hannity. He says: ‘The difference between the so-called liberals and conservatives is that the liberals want to shut us down. They truly do not believe that we should have airtime. They truly believe that we should be banned. We do not feel that way about them. We don’t like their positions but we acknowledge their right to expression. They do not extend us the same courtesy.’

Sean. Fucking. Hannity.

Take a moment to savour the balls-out insanity of both this segue and its implications.

Sean Fucking Hannity, who pals around with Neo-Nazis. Sean Fucking Hannity, who gives airtime – and therefore legitimacy – to a guy who believes that one of America’s biggest mistakes was giving women the vote. Sean Fucking Hannity, who once described a female Democrat as looking like a “a slutty flight attendant”. Sean Fucking Hannity, whose panel featuring “absolutely everyone who might have something relevant to say about women’s health” was composed entirely of men.

Listen here, Malzberg. Listen close. You know why some things get banned? Because they’re fucking dangerous. Because they hurt people. On a scale of Newt Gingrich to Rush Limbaugh, Hannity might not be as utterly batshit as some of his colleagues, but that doesn’t make his views any less fucking dangerous. I’m happy to let the opposition speak, but not when their words, or the words of those they support, encourage the erasure of my rights, or the rights of others, or help to incite violence against innocent people. You want to make this a left wing/right wing debate? Then acknowledge the fact that you, as of right this fucking second, are on the side of the racists, the misogynists, the bigots and the isolationists.

I might want you to shut the hell up and learn something about sexism, but Hannity and his ilk want me to shut the hell up and surrender my rights or they’ll take them by force. How dare you. How dare you even suggest, in the same fucking sentence, that your SFFnal critics are fascists for decrying your sexism while quoting an inflammatory liar whose politics don’t just want us silent, but legally disempowered?

How fucking dare you. 

Oh, look. Resnick’s talking again. Joy.

The New York Review of Science Fiction took some potshots at me because, to quote them, “Is Resnick’s space-bottled African culture ever sexist!”

First, it’s not Resnick’s space-bottled African culture. It’s the culture of the Kikuyu tribe, and indeed about 97% of the tribes in Africa.

Oh.

My.

Fucking.

God.

*explodes from racefail overload*

Really, Resnick? Fucking REALLY? 97% of the tribes in Africa resemble the Kikuyu in their sexism – 97% of African tribes are sexist?

I just. I cannot. I have lost the ability to even.

Have some more quotes, sans commentary. The lunacy really speaks for itself, and I’m losing the will to live.

Who should women want making decisions on what they are allowed to read… Andrea Dworkin? Do you want the State or Federal Government (or the Supreme Court) telling you what you are allowed in your bedroom, or with whom?…

You know, I think a lot of this brouhaha is because we’re Old White Guys… Old White Guys should only write about what they know, which as far as said group is concerned is other Old White Guys… We can’t have any black friends, because our generation was composed exclusively of slave-owners. We can’t even say ‘homosexual’, let alone define it or say it without cringing. Everybody knows that…

When all is said and done, we didn’t run the kind of diatribe you hear from almost every top-selling rap star these days…

If they can get away with censoring that, can you imagine what comes next? I’m pretty sure Joe Stalin could imagine it.

*collapses under the sheer weight of Poe’s Law in evidence, dies angrily, rants from beyond the grave*

Old men yelling at clouds. That’s all this is. Bitter old sexist, racist morons yelling at clouds and ranting about the good old days in the 60s and 70s, back when women and minorities experienced even more discrimination than they do now and had the good grace to be silent about it, all while issuing dire warnings about how, if we fascist liberals get our way, then Andrea Dworkin will be ruling our sex lives from her vagina-shaped throne adopt the smouldering ruins of democracy, burning copies of Conan the Barbarian to feed the massive coal-electric furnaces that power her mighty Dildoswords. Hoards of quivering castrati, their genitals removed with the ironic aid of pinking shears and egg scissors, will howl in the quiet darkness of this intellectual night, sharing their secretly hoarded copies of R. Scott Bakker novels for solace, all while desperately hoping that tomorrow’s meal of panfried goat uterus will be enough to sustain them through to the morrow.

What a fucking dabacle.

*I’m not being critical of prostitutes, male or female, nor of Swaggart for using them, except to the extent that it involved cheating on his wife. I’m more commenting on the telling hypocrisy and denial of a hardcore Evangelist trying to cover up his own sexuality out of a sense of shame. Whatever else you can say about the guy, clearly, he was neither happy nor emotionally healthy, at least as far as his sexuality went.

ETA: This post was originally titled Old Men Yelling At Clouds: SFWA Lunacy. I then changed that last word to idiocy, as it was pointed out to me that the use of lunacy was ableist; but as idiocy is also abelist, I’ve changed it to sexism.

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 “really” 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’t mean “accuracy,” because that’s 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’s how we know we’re seeing the “real” thing.

 

But, of course, we’re not. We’re 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 “gritty” for “realism,” another kind of “realism” 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 “plain truth” 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.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, with all that out of the way:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warning: All The Spoilers, much rant.

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

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

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

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

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

‘You can’t just decide to be happy.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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