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Posts Tagged ‘Assumptions’

Argo, and the Inconvenient Truth of Sahar

Spoilers: The hostages get away! The boat sinks! Etc.

When I saw the first trailer for Argo, I guffawed at the implausibility of the entire movie. CIA creates SF movie ruse to smuggle people out of Iran? Whatever, Hollywood. I figured it was just a good excuse for the media to fuel itself up for war with Iran (because we don’t have enough wars! And oh, those wacky Arab countries!).

It wasn’t until I looked this up on Wikipedia and saw that it was based on a true story that I realized I had to see the film. The sheer audacity of the idea knocked the breath out of me. How had I missed this story in all my reading about Iran? When I found out it’d only been declassified in the 90’s, I felt a little better about my ignorance, but only just. I still expected this to be a bit of a propaganda film, full of crazy evil terrorists and noble Americas. But SF film to smuggle out hostages! That was an epic plot, right there, and I had to see how it played out.

In fact, I didn’t realize just how much I expected evil-Arab-terrorists until I actually sat down in the theater and realized my whole body was taut and I was clasping my hands tightly, prepared to get through it with some nasty teeth gnashing over the pollution of historic events. There was a reason the Iranian revolution happened. Iranians had every right to be pissed off – we helped out a democratically elected representative and put a fucking tyrant in his place. If Iran had supported the overthrowing of our democratically elected leader, we’d be pretty pissed off at them, too.

But Argo wasn’t going to sugar coat why exactly these Americans were in this situation. The opening of the film set out explicitly why the Iranian people were so angry, and gave a good 50 year history of the events leading up to the storming of the embassy. I was incredibly shocked they did this. I wish I could say it didn’t shock me, but Hollywood can be so saccharin that I was prepared for the “oh those crazy Arab people” handwave.

Now, let’s not pretend this film doesn’t have Issues. Our primary characters are all men, and we focus heavily on the arcs for the men’s stories – Mendez’s wife doesn’t even get any lines- and Sahar, oh Sahar! Sahar about broke my heart. And though Iranians are presented as real people with real grievances, things fall apart there toward the end and we get these crazy foolish terrorist stand-ins waving guns and chasing planes (in actual fact, the embassy workers simply walked onto the plane, without all the Hollywood shenanigans at the end. But, yanno, Hollywood needs its suspense. The Arab-terrorists-chasing-planes-waving-guns thing was over the top even for them, tho).

 

Sahar makes a choice. For all the good it does her.

But this film knew what it was about, and had a good handle on the complexity of the situation. It doesn’t hurt that it was extraordinarily well-written – sometimes I forget Ben Affleck co-wrote an Academy-winning screenplay. The dialogue was punchy and witty, and again, the sheer craziness of this plan was so crazy that I could almost buy that it worked (I know, I know! It really *did* work! But holy crap, crazy). Affleck also brought a certain sadness and melancholy to this role that I’ve never seen him display. I usually can’t stand him because he comes across as some stupid jock, but I bought him in this role. Like others, I was also disappointed that a Hispanic actor didn’t play the part of an actual Hispanic historical figure. If we had a Hispanic guy play, say, Lincoln, can you imagine the shitstorm people would raise? Oh, whitewashing.

There was lots to appreciate in this film, though. I enjoyed how it handled the ineptitude of the CIA. “We’re going to deliver them some bicycles and have them bike out of Iran!” (this was a real plan presented at this meeting, in real life as well as this fictionalized version). It reminded me that our respective governments are full of overwhelmed, exhausted, and sometimes deeply stupid people who dig themselves and their people into deep holes without thinking about how the hell they’ll get them out. I know a few folks whose parents lived in Iran before the revolution, and mapping their experiences onto the ones presented in the film was interesting. I think it captured a lot of the fear and chaos at the time – and importantly, not just the fear and chaos for Americans, but for the Iranians themselves. Iranians who had to deal with the fallout. Foreigners could leave. But if you were Iranian, well… good luck.

Nothing illustrated this better than Sahar, the housekeeper for the Canadian ambassador, who was the only Iranian we got to know at all. When she keeps the secret of the ambassador’s houseguests despite very good reasons to give them up, I thought for sure she was going to get handed a passport and sent to Canada and safety. That would make sense, right? Exile sucks, but you’d help out people who helped you, right?

But Sahar does not get to Canada. Sahar ends the movie heading into Iraq. And if you know anything about history, you know that Iraq and Iran are about to enter a hellish bloody war – a war funded on both sides by the U.S. of A. I do not expect that Sahar’s life got infinitely better because she kept her secret and supported Americans. She just got thrown from one shitty situation created by American foreign policy into yet another shitty situation perpetuated by American foreign policy. I have a vivid memory of a relative of mine telling me nonchalantly that they were among the crews that carted weapons over to both Iraq and Iran during the war. They said it was treated as routine on both ends – both by the people who gave them the orders and by the Iranians and Iraqis who signed for the weapons on the other end.

Bikes! We’ll send them bikes! Your gov at work, kids.

Why does everyone hate Americans? Gee, I wonder. I’ve talked before about how the Iran/Iraq war was some of the inspiration for the conflict in God’s War, and it was that story of my relative’s nonchalant gunrunning that made me realize that wars could be perpetuated almost indefiniately by outsiders, and that this was actually a very common occurence.

So at the end of Argo, when everything else is neatly wrapped up, we still had this image of Sahar fleeing into Iraq, this knowledge of a loose thread, a life undone. And though I lamented this loose thread, I realized it was a purposeful one. Because while all of the hostages are eventually brought home, and yay rah-rah America, there’s Sahar still out there, displaced, walking into a war that will be perpetuated by the very people she chose to shelter.

At the end of the viewing I went to, the audience burst into a loud round of applause. Here was the heroic story American needed right now, and I felt it too – the idea that America was, in fact, still heroic and clever, even if it had to be heroic and clever because it was stupid and invasive in the first place. And it made me think about Carter, and how everybody hated him as a president because he didn’t go to war with Iran. They were angry and upset even though this was the guy who somehow – against all odds – managed to get everyone home safely (Iran-Contra was done under Reagan’s watch, not Carter’s). In fact, after getting that opening about the history of the U.S.’s involvement in Iranian politics, I remained even more astounded that anyone came home at all.

But those applause made me wonder how many people would actually remember Sahar. Did they remember the opening, and why these people were in trouble in the first place? Did they go out thinking, “Man, America should stop doing stupid things so it doesn’t have to create crazy mad movie plots to rescue people”? Like, isn’t it weird that the CIA first trained Osama bin Laden and so it’s maybe not so heroic when, later, they take him out, since they sort of helped make him in the first place?

Likely, they did not. Likely, most folks went home gleefully saying, “Argo fuck yourself!” and feeling good-hearted about all the heroic missions America’s accomplished that we don’t know about. And I won’t lie, that stuff was gleeful for me too. I loved every bit of the Hollywood scenes, of the make-believe, of the sheer audacity of the plan.

But the film itself, I felt, didn’t blindly encourage that rah-rah feeling. The theater of the make-believe film and the theater of the demonstrations and hostage situation are juxtaposed in one very effective scene, and it left me gnawing on a lot more questions than answers. It made me wonder if anything we do makes any sense at all, or if we’re just all caught in this endless cycle of reactionary craziness, acts of heroism – like the storming of the embassy (certainly viewed as heroic by some in Iran, cause hey, these people supported a guy who killed and tortured your family) and the rescue of the hostages – both reactionary, both nuts. There are no easy answers. One country’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist. It just depends on what side of history you’re sitting on. And in fact, it’s often our own actions that determine who takes up arms and who doesn’t. All those left on the other side of events can do is react to the mess that’s left behind.

That night, lying in bed, it was still Sahar and her shattered life I thought about, though. Not terrorists or freedom fighters – not who was intrinsically “right” or “wrong,” but the people who had to get up and go on and live in the aftermath of events, of the mess left behind after countries rattle their bloody chessboards.

I hope I wasn’t the only one.

Taking Responsibility for Writing Problematic Stories

NOTE: Contains a fairly major spoiler for GOD’S WAR.

I spent a lot of time this weekend on panels at WorldCon talking about the responsibilities of being a writer, and how what we put on the page can mean something very personal to people. I spend a stupid amount of time buried in research books and googling shit on the Internet and digging up first person accounts of things and evaluating my own biases, and you know, that shit can get exhausting sometimes. Sometimes you lose focus. Sometimes you forget what you’re doing it all for.

And sometimes, just like everybody else, I screw up.

After one of my panels at WorldCon, I had a reader come up to me and say that she had chosen God’s War as one of her book club’s selections. It turns out, she said, her book club had a number of gay men in it, and several of them were pretty pissed off when one of my major characters (and the book’s only gay male character) dies about three quarters of the way through the book.

Because, of course, the gay guy always dies.

I was aware of this particular problematic trope going in. Once I realized what I’d done, I picked up and rearranged all of my characters to try and re-write it. I’d already finished the first draft by that point that I couldn’t find a way to write myself out of it without completely re-tooling another character or adding in somebody else. I knew it was a cliché that the gay guy friend always dies. So I did my best to write around it. I even put in a scene between him and his boyfriend, so at least he wasn’t the only gay male character mentioned in the entire book (and of course there are plenty of lesbians in the book, but the trope still stands). I tried to find other mentions of male homosexuality in the world. Because I’d gotten rid of so many guy characters by sending them off to war, I felt like if I tried to shoehorn in anybody else it would feel forced.

And though I stood there talking to the reader about all the things I’d tried to do both here and in later books to mitigate that problematic death the gay guy still dies. I still played into the stereotype. (I don’t want to give away too much of RAPTURE, but I did compose that book from outline to “The End” with an eye toward avoiding this trope, because I’d fallen so easily into it in the first book. Of course, now that I’m looking back at it, there’s a death can could be problematic there. FUCK. GAH.)

And you know, that stereotype hurts people.

I would love to be one of those writers who just says, “Hey, it’s a brutal world! Everyone is mangled and killed equally!” but that isn’t really true. It’s like somebody saying that the reason all the female characters in their fantasy book are passive, raped damsels who exist to be saved by the hero because it’s “realistic.”

Like, what? Realistic in what world? And did you forget you were writing fantasy?

Sometimes book stuff happens because that’s why the book happens. Sometimes it so happens the character who has to die is a gay guy. The problem is when he’s the only gay guy in the book. The problem is when you read a lot of books and the only gay guy in the book is the one who dies in every other book.

Because I understand that my work –and every other writer’s work – isn’t read in a vacuum. We have to interrogate what we’re doing and understand how it’ll be read in the wider context of things.

And as much of a gut punch as it was for me to be reminded that seeing yet another gay male character thrown under the bus in service to someone else’s story hurt people, it doesn’t hurt me as much as the person who actually read it for the third, fourth, fifth time and threw it across the room because, goddammit, why the fuck does the gay guy always die?

When I challenge both myself and other writers to interrogate stereotypes, and work hard to understand how their work might be read in the context of other things – this is the reason.   Because what we do has the ability to inspire and delight – or hurt and frustrate. Sometimes in equal measure.

I fail a lot at this, as this example shows. I get caught up in the bullshit just like anybody else. There’s no excuse for it, and all I can do is endeavor to do better next time, and ensure that any time I do employ a trope, I’m acutely conscious that I’m doing it for a really fucking good reason that I don’t yet have the skill or ability to write my way out of.

Because though our stories may be fiction, the people who read them are not.

On hitting deadlines, writing a book a year, and subverting the limits of make-believe

For reasons various and sundry, I have just now released a draft of RAPTURE to my editor, agent, and first readers (yes, the book was due 4/30, and I finished it 4/30, but I had to hold onto it due to Boring Business Things).

I’ve been toodling around with it, of course, since I finished it. Throughout that process I’ve been alternately going, “OK, this isn’t so bad,” and “Oh God, this is total shit.”

Last night, after finally releasing my death grip on the draft which no one but me had yet seen, I plunged full tilt into OH GOD THIS IS TOTAL SHIT.

Now, to be fair, this is a pretty standard thing that happens to me when I release a book to folks. In fact,  I always feel the WORST about a book right after I’ve approved all copyedits and the thing officially goes to the printer and THERE IS NO TURNING BACK. That is the time of weeping and gnashing of teeth about how I will be denigrated as some foolish word hack by friends, fans and peers.

The term for this type of behavior that gets bandied about in writer circles is imposter syndrome, and because I’ve been listening to and learning from writers many epic years longer than I’ve been writing books that get published, I’ve been aware of it a good long while.

The thing is, even knowing that it’s just something I do every time doesn’t make me feel any better. After all, a lot of people write books. A lot of people write shitty books. HOW DO YOU KNOW YOU AREN’T THE ONE WRITING THE SHITTY BOOK? About all I can do to manage it is to wallow in my self misery with some good humor and hold on to the tenuous awareness that I’m a nutcake.

Some of this, I know, comes from the topics I choose to tackle in my fiction. When you’re writing books that dig deep into issues of race, class, religion, gender, sexuality, and all that on top of a seemingly innocuous slash-and-hack plot, you second guess yourself a lot. Especially when you’re writing fast, even if “fast” to fans, looks like a glacial speed. I wrote the first salable draft of GOD’S WAR over four years, and spent another two years in various revisions. INFIDEL was written in about two and a half years. By contrast, I wrote RAPTURE in about 14 months, and it’s nearly 30% longer than GOD’S WAR. That means EVEN MORE PAGES WHERE I CAN SCREW THINGS UP.

And, OK, let’s be real – much of the initial writing process of GOD’S WAR was stalled or rehashed because I spent a good deal of the ramp-up time doing research. With subsequent books, the core worldbuilding was done and characters fleshed out. So I could concentrate more on things like plot and character arcs. Research done during the other two books related to specific scenes or scenery or simply referred back to notes I’d already taken for the first book.

But writing quickly is not beneficial if you’re trying to subvert tropes and stereotypes. The first thing that passes from my brain to keyboard is often hackneyed tripe, and so I have to go back and question it, and rethink it, and go, “OK, how could this be read? What could somebody infer from this? Is this just lazy writing?”

I literally rewrote and then restored one character’s chapters three times because I couldn’t decide how badly I wanted him to suffer and at whose expense. In one version, he suffered by me giving his wife great agency, but that made him very unlikeable. In the second, he appeared on the surface to be more likable, but I’d stripped his wife of agency. The third time I put back in the scenario I had written the first time, I realized there was no more I could do on my own. I’d lost any pretense of an objective view of the book. It was time to release it into the wild for outside comments and a final rehash.

What constant tinkering also does is create massive inconsistencies throughout the book, and all of these will have to be addressed. When you kill a character at one point in the book, then take it back and put it in later, or go in and add a character THREE TIMES and then take them out THREE TIMES, well, yeah. And that’s not even getting to replacing terms and names because the first ones were lazy (“Maquis,” Kameron, really?).

I have been working very hard at writing faster this last year, because there’s this strangely insatiable need and expectation now that writers put out at least a book a year, if not multiple books. The thing is, we’re not all James Patterson, who now just writes outlines and then farms out the books to his stable of writers. Some of us have day jobs and freelancing work and family lives.

I recently broke down and finally budgeted to have somebody come in and clean the house once a month, because J. and I just couldn’t keep up. My taxes bounced back from the tax man this year because I’d stupidly put in the wrong standard deduction.  I just paid nearly $20 in library fines because I’ve got a rotating pile of over 40 books out from the library at any given time, and schlepping them all back after you’ve exceeded your number of renewals can be a chore. Then there’s my recent  A1c test, which was 7.1 (it’s supposed to be under 7).  When I’m writing quickly, and trying to be smart about it, other stuff starts to slide.

My brain, it squeals.

Let’s be brutally honest here: the stuff that I write isn’t stuff that comes out easily from my brain. There might be some folks who churn up weird and wonderful shit while relaxing at the spa, but I’m not one of them. Kameron Hurley books are dutifully researched books, and they should have an awareness of what the fuck they’re saying when two characters fuck, or the gay guy dies, or the folks who use Arabic words are chopping off peoples’ heads, or the aliens carry around crucifixes. If you say those things, you had better damned well know what the consequences are. You’re responsible for the images you put on the page, and if you’re going to go down paths that could be misread, you best do your damnedest to ensure that you’ve painted your people and situations as clearly and compassionately as possible.

But the real thing I have to achieve, and the moments I yearn for, is when I can actively manage to subvert reader expectations. I won’t give you a list of those here for RAPTURE, because, hey, spoilers – but those are the moments I push for, and they’re the hardest ones to think through. They take the most time. They take far longer than the potentially problematic ones, because as much as you try not to make them problematic and subvert them, at some level, people expect them.

And I have to do better.

Writing faster means a higher probability of failure for me right now. Some of that is because I still notice a lot of my knee-jerk sexism and racism as I write, and all of that has to be thought through and rehashed. I throw out a lot of outlines that include the first or second or third thing I thought of. Those are generally the lazy things, the things people have seen before. But when you’re writing fast, the impulse, and often, the necessity, is to go with the first or second thing you think of. You just don’t have time for anything else.

Sure, that’s what revisions are for. But if you build an entire book on three or four first-run ideas, untangling yourself from those first-run ideas after you already have a draft is an epic task.

So why do I care? I mean, really, that’s what it comes down to for me. Why do I even care if I do lazy stuff like have a heroine who’s raped for no reason but to say the bad guy’s bad (happened in the first draft of GW, believe or not; excised, thankfully), or the gay guy was molested by women (expunged from this draft, oh yeah), or the two abusive protagonists totally hook up and live happily ever after? (don’t ask).

I care because these aren’t the books I want to read. I’ve read these books. They are lazy books. I got into this biz because I wanted to see something different. I wanted to make something different. What I’ve found so frustrating throughout this process is how difficult it is to subvert expectations, to not go with the same tired stories. You get so used to building worlds on evil queens and strapping huntsman heroes that you forget there are more than just stereotypes at play here. These are real people reading your books, not cardboard cutouts, and the images you put on the page become a part of the way they view, see, read, understand, and interpret the world.

I know how media messages affect me now, and how they affected me growing up. I know what stories do, when all the ones you read are about how people like you are powerless. You internalize things. It twists you. Sometimes you deal with it by becoming even more femmy, to fit that role. And sometimes, like me, you just reject the label, and pretend you’re not one of those women-creatures. You pretend you’re a real person. Trouble is, you can teach yourself to identify with trash-talking 80’s apocalypse heroes, but nobody is going to view you as one. Because they watched the same stuff you did. They know you’re just meat.

I want to write books where I’m not meat. Where women are heroes. Where sexuality is fluid. Where things are very, very different – and not at all the way you’d expect.

But I write these worlds from a place firmly rooted in this one, and it’s a struggle, every fucking time, to cast something outside of myself, to haul myself over, to wrench free. Cause nobody wants you to hurl yourself outside the box. If there’s somebody over here blaring a different message, then you might have to question yours, too.

I have great empathy for storytellers who tell shitty, predictable stories full of what you know are totally lazy, knee-jerk choices. I have empathy for them because that’s my default too.  Hey, cool space battles ahoy! There’s some chick with a flamethrower and a black guy, so we’re good, right?

No. No, you’re not.

Some days I don’t know that there’s any difference between them and me, except for the fact that I actively look for it. I actively fight it. Oh, sure, I fail at it. I fail spectacularly at it. But I keep bashing my head against it, because the alternative is far worse. The alternative is shoring up the same old conversation. It’s being part of the problem. It’s writing yet another story that eight year old me would pick up that would teach her how much it sucked to be a woman. Another story that inspired some sort of mental head game of denial and internalized misogyny.

It’s so much easier to write those stories when I’m writing fast, though. So much easier to give in to random rape scenes and effeminate gay guys and evil lesbians and uncivilized nomads. I know these stories. I grew up with them. They start to seem normal.

Thing is, they aren’t.

Cause, yanno, we had an openly gay president here in the U.S., and women were the majority of early computer programmers, and  Shaka Zulu had an all-female fighting force, and… and… all these bullshit “stories” we’re told about “the way things have always been” actually don’t date back much past the 1950’s.

It’s a liberating sort of feeling, actually, when you realize that everything you think is normal is actually a recent invention. It’s all just make-believe.

So why is it so hard to make-believe myself outside of it, a book a year at a time?

Prometheus: White Dudes Seeding the Universe with their Magical Man-Sperm (Naturally)

NOTE: This post assumes you have already watched Prometheus, so is full of SPOILERS.

In the world of Prometheus, we all came from white dudes, who went around seeding the universe with their magical, life-giving sperm.

It was a fine feat those boys managed, creating whole worlds all on their own. I can’t help but wonder if it’s the secret dream of the filmmakers, to just go on creating whole worlds: movies, books, video games, work places, without the troubling influence of all those annoying females.  Unless they’d like to rent out their wombs as incubators for alien sperm. Cause that would totally be OK.

There’s a lot going on in this movie, and this post here already does a fine job of delving into some of the nitty-gritty of the imagery and the perhaps-this-is-what-the-fuck-is-going-on-ness that gives the film makers perhaps more credit than what is due.

But what I want to talk about here is the thing that didn’t really wig me out until a couple days after I watched the movie, a movie I did actually quite enjoy (this post to the contrary, I know).

The thing that wigged me out was this:

I realized this movie had totally erased women from the entire creation history of humanity. In fact, we were erased from the entire creation mythos of the entire universe.

Like, utterly and totally.

Like, wow.

This happens so often that I barely even noticed it while I was watching it. I’m so steeped in Greek mythology and Abrahamic religious texts that it just breezed past me on first viewing. It wasn’t until I was reading an oldy but a goody, When God Was a Woman, last night that I realized how incredibly fucked up it was to posit the creation of an entire species without the aid or involvement of women. Since, because, yanno… women create people. 

It’s been a coolly calculated thing for some time, this erasure of the importance of women from the actual act of birth and creation. You might think that’s nutty and totally impossible because, hey, women make babies! But you see it a lot in the Greek god myths – lots of people sprouting out of people’s heads, and being ripped from people’s sides or grown from some guy’s lopped off cock. It happens a lot in the origin myths we grow up with, and it’s totally fucked up.  You even hear it a lot now, any time somebody says, “Hey, women should have choices about when and how they give birth, since they have to spend 9 months giving their body’s energy and their lives over to creating all the cool things necessary for a zygote to become a person” and then somebody cries, “But it takes a man’s sperm to merge with the egg first! Men are just as important in the creation of people! Let’s talk about men!”

Whoa, boy. Here’s your zygote, then, dude. You have fun turning that into a baby.

So of course, in this movie, our forebears are white guys – very much gendered as guys, with big bulging muscles and everything. They aren’t the willowy, androgynous type of aliens that you could argue just reproduce via parthenogenesis. No, these are definitely guys. And white ones, which… yeah, that’s a whole other rant right there. So these aren’t just any guys, but “Engineers.” And like any guy trying to build something, they’re shown as also being very good at creating stuff that destroys things. Like guys would do, of course. Right?

But wait, you might say, didn’t our archeologist/geneticist heroine give birth to the proto-alien?

No, no, children. Remember: she was sterile. All she did was incubate the Magical Man-Sperm. The way women do.

There is so very much old-boy Greek mythology running amok here that you might get a little overwhelmed if you think too hard. For a movie that I enjoyed because it actually had three female characters, offering us a somewhat diverse number of female heroines, they got pushed aside a whole lot in this particular creation myth.

Creation myth the first: The opening scene is of a guy-alien drinking some magical sperm, then bursting apart and forming the building blocks of life. Creation the second: guys walk into area with weapon-tubes in them and set off life-reaction, which then infects two guys. Creation the third: robot alien (also gendered male) infects human guy with life-stuff, who then starts bursting apart to form said life but is eventually burned up by a woman. Creation the fourth: guy with life-stuff impregnates a barren woman with his magical worm-sperm, which then uses her body like a vessel, and attempts to burst forth from it.

In fact, when it comes to creating life in this myth, women are only involved as vessels. Oh, sure, you might say, this is just a carryover from the other alien movies. Everybody’s a vessel. But it’s not. It was a deliberate choice to create large, gendered white guys as our creators. It was a deliberate choice to make Shaw barren (which likely means she does not ovulate), so that any alien child issuing forth from her body is not, in fact, a mix of her and the life-stuff, but just the guy’s magical life-sperm threatening to kill her.

In fact, the only partially creating-like moment Shaw has is when she asks to have the thing ripped out of her by asking for a “Cesarean” instead of an abortion.  The more appropriate thing for her to have asked in a movie like this is for an abortion.  Maybe the filmmakers got too squicked out about that.

Even at the very end, when Weyland’s daughter is finally freed by her dad’s death and could go on to build the corporation back up herself and become the head of Weyland and be our Big Bad in the next set of movies as she goes about trying to harness the alien life technology for herself, she dies stupidly instead. Cause heaven forbid a woman in this world goes on to live and create something, even something terrible.

There was a lot of fun in this movie. Shaw’s surgery scene has been lauded as awesomely horrific, and I like to handwave the whole part where the machine would not have actually sewn her womb back up because it wouldn’t have registered she was a woman, being only “calibrated for men.” She would have bled to death long before those staples came out.

Some folks have rolled their eyes about the whole “med pod calibrated for guys only” thing, but look at the wider world of this movie. Look at who created the universe in their world-brains. Look at who does all the life-creating. Why on earth, in this universe created by dudes, would anyone, even in 2098, create a prototype medical machine that was calibrated for women? Women are still the afterthought in this universe.

As our creators intended.

Lots of folks have gone on about how the characters in this movie were totally plot driven. They did things we needed for the plot. Like stupidly taking off their helmets on a foreign planet. Like getting lost in an ancient construction when they’re in touch with a ship who has a 3-d map rendering of their position right in front of them. Like not knowing how to run sideways.

But this is not a movie about people. It’s a movie about gods and myths. If you read this whole thing as one big Greek myth about how we sprouted out of some guy’s head, Chariots of the Gods style, this all makes sense.

If you were looking for a movie about actual humans, though, well… sorry. In a world where your prototype med pods are only “calibrated for men” you’re not going to have a story with actual people in it, just god-puppets, making life out of some guy’s explody head.

Like ya do.

What is this Fat Woman Doing on TV?

When I rant about biases and stereotypes and authors’ blindspots, I get the impression that some people think I’m some perfect person without any biases. I’ve talked a lot about my awareness of my own misogyny and racism, but there’s other stuff that creeps up on you too, sometimes when you least expect it.

Bias does not happen in a vacuum. It’s a learned behavior. You eat it every morning with your cornflakes and simply haul it all back up the moment it’s triggered.

This truth hit me especially hard a few weeks ago when I was shopping at a local big box store and cruising past a row of televisions where a nondescript, sweater-vest wearing fat woman was talking on the screen in front of a harsh white background. My hind brain immediately sneered (despite the fact that I, as a matter of fact, am also a fat woman), “What the heck is that fat lady doing on TV? Is she talking about some new dieting show or how hard it is to be a mom?”

I kid you not. That was the insidious bullshit that popped immediately into my head. Afterall, how often did I see fat women on TV? All the fat women I see on TV are from The Biggest Loser, talking about how crappy their lives are because they can’t tie their shoes. And then they barf and scream their way to skinny and they’re allowed to smile on TV and actually talk about how great their lives are. But not until they’re skinny.

So here I was, mocking the fat woman in a sweater vest.

It wasn’t until the show continued to roll, cutting to images of said fat woman hurling a shot put in a massive stadium, that I realized she was, in fact, an Olympic shot putter.

She was an Olympic athlete. 

Biases and stereotypes do us all a disservice. In this case, I’d totally put the woman into a box without knowing anything about her but the fact that she was fat, but it also did me a disservice, because by putting her in a box, I’d put myself into one too. Fat women only get to speak when it’s about how much it sucks to be fat. That’s what TV told me. That’s what I’d lapped up with my cornflakes.

And now, random photos of buff, meaty women I wish we were all seeing a lot more of:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

They’ll Come for You… Whether You Speak up or Not

May 17, 2012

During times of great social upheaval, it can often seem safer to say nothing. You get noticed less. You piss off fewer people. You go around making sure the trains run on time. You make your dollars and go home and stuff them in the mattress and keep your head down and hope they don’t come for you.

It’s a silly position, really, because they always come for you.

I think it’s easier to remain neutral on stuff like politics when you think that specific policies won’t affect you. If you aren’t a woman, or non-white, or gay, or disabled, or poor, or chronically ill, it’s really easy to just keep your head down and shut up. “It’s not my concern,” you say, while totally forgetting that we live in a world where our own quality of life is directly impacted by the quality of life of others (vaccinations are a really easy one to point to; so’s universal health care). We forget that our way of life – access to life saving drugs, clean water, abundance of food – is wholly contingent on the skills and abilities of many millions of others who support the systems that care for us. We also forget that for many of us, being a part of some of these groups harshly affected by social policies is just one accident or “bad luck” incident away. Poverty, chronic illness, and disability can happen gradually or suddenly, often when you’re paying the least attention.

I say all this as somebody who grew up upholding 80’s action movie masculinity as the pinnacle of cool. I always liked the idea that strong people were loners, they pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps, they had witty lines and impeccable health and virility and nobody messed with them. This was more about who I wanted to be than who I wanted to date, mind, and it really influenced how I viewed other people. Life sucks? Do something about it. Stop whining. Nobody keeps you down but yourself.

I’m still gung-ho about assertiveness, negotiating for yourself, standing up to injustice, and the like, but I’m far less likely to tell people that all they should be doing is looking out for themselves, and fuck everybody else. When you look at the way we’ve constructed our entire society, very few of us would thrive in a place where we had to be totally self-sufficient. Illness would kill a great many of us, and childbirth, accidents, starvation… we rely on other people to help us succeed, however invisible those millions of hands are as we pick up that orange at the grocery store or pop a pill to help prevent heart disease or drive a gas-powered car 40 miles to work.

I didn’t have a real appreciation for just how much we rely on other people until my pancreas blew out and just… stopped working when I was 26. Immune disorder, they told me. Sorry. Now you have to take 5-6 shots a day just to survive. The only reason I live is because there are people creating synthetic insulin in a lab.

That whole independent 80’s apocalypse hero I’d hoped to style myself after kind of imploded along with my pancreas, because even if I raided every pharmacy from here to the ocean after the End Times, it’s all got a one year expiration date. If modern society implodes, I do too, no matter how tough, smart, and savvy I am.

It gives you a lot of perspective, being at the edge of death all the time. I’ve gotten really touchy with doctors, health insurance providers, and pharmacies. I scream and yell at them a lot, because when you need something to survive, it makes you a tad nutty if it looks like you may not be able to get it.

It has humbled me a lot, and given me a great deal of empathy.

Being a woman certainly also has disadvantages in our society, but for much of my life, until I really entered the workforce, I could pretend I was a guy, you know, a “real person” and not one of those femmy women that everyone made fun of like they were useless. It wasn’t until I went out into the real world, among strangers far removed from my cozy hometown, that I realized there were people who looked at me as prey just for being a woman, and people who assumed I cared about things, or did things, or wanted things, completely based on my gender instead of what I could do. I got passed up for a raise at the movie theater I worked at because managers had to learn to run the projection booth, and the reels were 70lbs. Nobody ever asked me if I could lift 70lbs (of course I can). They just assumed I couldn’t. So I wasn’t even considered (I learned this later. Things changed, and some women marshaled through by being overly insistent, but it never occurred to me that I’d have to *fight* for something I was obviously qualified for. I still thought I was a white guy, after all).

That was the first time I realized that I was going to be at a disadvantage in the workplace, and that I was going to have to work just a little bit harder than everybody else to get noticed just as much. I had a lot of advantages, too, but I learned early that I had to telegraph them.

I’ll never forget the time my parents went to a swanky restaurant with us kids and received terrible service. We weren’t exactly dressed like royalty, and my mom told me that we’d likely been dissed because we looked poor, and the server assumed we’d leave a bad tip. Knowing that we would return the next night and it was likely we’d get the same server, my parents left a huge tip. I thought this bit of reverse psychology was a roiling pile of shit. But the next night, lo and behold, we got the same server, and boy whoa howdy was he nice to us.

“As long as people think you have money,” my parents told me, “they will treat you really well.”

“Having money” or klout, or any other type of invisible advantage will always be invisible in your first interaction unless you like to go everywhere dressed like a celebrity. So, like my parents did, you have to telegraph it quickly in every new interaction. Some of these you’ll never get to do. People will see you first as a woman, or non-white, or a poor person (based on dress),  or, if you go there holding hands with a same-sex date, as a gay person, and you’ll have to fight for every inch of respect you get from them.

I could pretend that legislation regarding women’s reproductive choices, or health care in general, don’t affect me. I could pretend that it doesn’t matter whether or not we think non-white people or queer people are, you know, actual people. When it comes to being queer, I’m invisible, being married to a guy, and when it comes to being non-white, well, I’m white, so who cares, right?

But all I have to do is think about what it’s like when people make assumptions about me based on shitty movies and crap TV shows and outrageous, ingrained cultural assumptions instead of pretending I’m a person they actually have to get to know.

And when people talk about why we shouldn’t have universal health care because poor people don’t deserve to be alive, I remind myself that the people who say that are just one health catastrophe away from changing their minds. But  it helps if some of us remind them of that.

It takes a good many people to keep me alive. I recognize that I need to take steps to support them, too, because we’re nothing without each other.  That’s a position I could shut up about, or tuck under a rug, for fear of, I don’t know, angry emails or lost book sales, but let’s be honest here – the people who think women and non-white people aren’t human are probably the least likely to pick up a book with first lines like mine anyway.

I spent a great deal of my life trying to be quiet and nice and not piss anyone off. I was miserable. It served no purpose. And they still came for me. It made me even easier to dismiss, to overlook, to assume I was just somebody else everybody could roll over and spout off ridiculously sexist, racist crap to without dissent. Nodding and smiling gets old. It makes it easier for people to box you up and ship you off.

I’m only really alive when I’m pissing people off anyway.

And  shooting up insulin.

 

Genderblindered: “We’re both queens. So who will hang out the laundry?”

I read an old proverb once that went, “We’re both queens. So who will hang out the laundry?”

I think this is an important point that a lot of seemingly imaginative fiction fails to take into account when creating societies.

I was on a panel about women in combat at Epic Confusion when Scott Lynch brought up the fact that he often wrote in female guards and background characters in traditionally masculine roles without making a big deal about it. The idea was, to paraphrase, that equality was just something that was in his world, and the role of women in these positions went unquestioned in the society, and thus, in the book.

This is actually a more-or-less common thing for folks to do in SF in particular (and even in some noteworthy fantasy like Lynch’s), but it’s been nagging at me for a while. I mean, “everybody’s equal” should be a positive thing, right? Women can be soldiers and shopkeepers and boxers and bankers. How many people, day-to-day, reflect on why it is that women in our society hold those positions (or even question why they hold them in such fewer numbers than men, or why they’re paid less for them)? Oh, sure, there’s a long, turbulent history of women fighting for the right to hold those positions at all, but it’s not generally something that’s on everybody’s mind as they go about their business.  And ya’ll know I’m not the one to say we need more infodumping in fiction. So it’s cool.

But. Here’s the thing. It’s actually a bit blindered. It’s focusing on about 52% of a world’s population and how they comport themselves. And it ignores how the other half of that society is going to have to change even in the face of the kind of uneasy, tepid, on-paper-equality we have in the U.S. Cause anybody can tell you that as the expectations for what women did, and could do, have changed even in our own country, the expectations of what men were suppose to do, and expected to do, have changed, too.

See, if you’ve got a society that’s truly, really, totally “equal” you’re not just going to have women guards, lawyers, and bodyguards. You’re also going to have an equal number of male child caretakers, kindergarten teachers, nurses, secretaries, receptionists, sex workers, and housemaids (unless you have cunningly created a society that doesn’t have sex work, and if it’s truly equal, I can tell you that it probably won’t. But that’s another rant).

“Equal” societies aren’t just about putting women in armor and calling it good. It’s about totally breaking down the assumptions of gendered work – for everyone – and rethinking, from the ground up, how that society builds, organizes, reproduces, communicates, and even what it dreams about.

More likely, what you’re going to see in more-or-less equal societies created on paper is that somebody is being oppressed to allow another subset of people to be “equal.” So if women are bodyguards working twelve hour shifts, somebody else had better be running take-out food stalls that feed them, the creches that care for their children, and the stores that do their laundry – or you need to have some really advanced technology that takes care of all of that.

If men and women aren’t sharing work, then they’re likely fobbing it off on somebody else – whether it be service-oriented businesses or slaves or servants (and if if they’re doing that, sure, you may have a society that doesn’t have specifically gendered work, but it’s certainly not a society that’s “equal”). Or everybody pays in to have the state take care of their kids. Or they create houses that clean themselves (the old “technology will make us equal” thing).

I do get annoyed in conversations about casual equality in fantastic societies, because they tend to focus on what women need to do to be equal. Equality just means that women will be stronger and better educated and get better jobs, right? They’ll be real people – just like guys! Like everything else, we measure the oppressiveness or openness of a society based on “what women are allowed to do” instead of what the people are free to do.  It glosses over just how massive the change will be.

But what isn’t addressed is that in order for this to work, the men in these societies will have to change, too. Cause if everyone is equal, somebody is losing power and privilege. And that’s going to piss some people off.  It’s why things aren’t equal today, because the folks who used to have unquestioned power are very well aware that they’re slowly but surely losing it, and they’re fighting it tooth and nail.

There are all sorts of ways to construct the social dynamics of societies, many of them with real current and historic examples, which is why I’m often so disappointed that in a book that spends three years trying to get its science right, the woman’s in the kitchen barefoot and pregnant while her husband reads the news in their two bedroom, two bath future-condo.

I  mean, really?

There’s a great article on the changing expectations of fatherhood just in the last couple centuries, including some alternative child caring expectations in other societies (yes, societies here on EARTH, even!) that should at least get folks to thinking about how things have been and thus, could be different.

I mean, you guys – we’re writing/reading fantasy, OK? There is absolutely no excuse for things not to get out-there-crazy fantastic. Including your effing family and gender dynamics.

It’s not just about changing our conception of what women’s work is, or what women’s place is or women this, women that, wear this, wear that. Because I can tell you, after spending several years hip-deep in Abrahamic religions and people’s interpretations of them, I’m kinda bored with seeing societies who overly focus on and define themselves (and are outwardly defined by others) entirely on the appearance and conduct of the women within those societies.

Innovative worldbuilding is about asking, really asking, what it means to be a man in this society too, and what exactly constitutes men’s work – if there is such a thing.  What can men wear? What can they say? What jobs can they hold? And… why? If you’ve got gendered work, there should be a good, non-cliched reason for it. If you don’t, great.

But when you finish writing a book, or reading a book, you should have a good idea of who’s hanging out the laundry.

 

Stories From Another Country: Tales of wartime, immigration, and assimilation

Today, I’ve got a guest post up over at The Ranting Dragon reviews site.

Stories From Another Country

When I was growing up, the holidays meant family gatherings over rich food slathered in buttery sauces and familiar stories of life during wartime in another country.

My grandmother grew up in Nazi-occupied France, and met my grandfather, an American GI, during the liberation. Her father was part of the French resistance, and one of her most nail-biting stories was that of the evening when two members of the Gestapo showed up at her door asking questions about her father….read the rest

Yes, you’re a racist. But it doesn’t mean you have to be a terrorist.

You’re a racist. Ok?

It’s OK. Take a deep breath. It doesn’t mean you have to be a horrible person. I promise.

Just… listen.

For the most part, I’m addressing white American folks in this particular message, because, you know, I’m white. And American. I get it. I grew up here too, in a white ghetto. But no matter what kind of sticky racist programming we’ve been given, I know we can be better people. We don’t have to be terrorists. We don’t have to fear and condemn and imprison our own people. Because the problem is not at all “the Other” we keep lamenting about.

The problem is “us.”

I’ve been listening to tales of “Homeland Security” (I *always* think “Orwell” every time I hear this term used) detaining innocent people for ten years now. I’ve heard of all sorts of people who’ve lost the ability to even *travel* to the U.S. because of our “Homeland Protection” policies (Ok, honestly, it has the ring of Nazi Germany about it, doesn’t it? There’s a reason for that. It comes from the same fear-and-terror place). We lost the bid on the Olympics because the whole world knew what we wouldn’t admit to ourselves – we would needlessly harass, detain, and terrorize anyone who spoke a non-American language, had a non-American accent, wore a “different” piece of clothing (those headscarves sure are scary!), or whose complexion looked like anything darker than what a white person would aquire at a tanning booth.

Knowing all of this for so fucking long, I’m not sure why this story of a woman traveling on September 11th who was detained for NO FUCKING REASON along with two passengers who shared her row angered me so damned much. I became absolutely livid. I couldn’t sleep. I went over the scenario in my head again and again.

I realized we, as Americans, had become everything we hated. We had become the monsters. The police state. Because when Homeland Security takes you into custody, let’s face it – you lose all rights as an American citizen. They can detain you as long as they like. Hours, weeks, months, years. You have no legal recourse. That’s what the Patriot Act did, and that’s what we refuse to acknowledge and take responsibility for. I did this, just as much as you did, because when it happened we were so fearful for our lives and our jobs and our health that we just let the government do whatever it wanted, because it didn’t pertain to “us,” because we blindly believed that, of course, only “guilty” people would have any trouble, right? I ranted about it, sure, but did I sign any petitions? Did I protest the dissolutions of our rights outside of some bloggy screed?

No. And that non-action is from someone who feels so betrayed by this bit of legislation that just thinking about it burns through spoons.

But what I found even worse about this bit of legislation was that there were, in fact, individuals who do actually support it, and whose actions in support of this legislation cause needless suffering in others. The fearmongering, the terror, the abject biases, and outright racism that leads somebody on a plane to point to a vaguely Arab-looking woman and two Indian men on a plane and say “They look suspicious to me” (because they went to the bathroom? Because they were playing on their phones?) digusts and sickens me. It has taken me a long time to acknowledge that the Patriot Act was not some weird anomalous thing done in a vacuum by bizzare leaders. The people who elected them, who put them there, and who sactioned those votes, are the same people pointing to non-white people on planes and saying “PUT THEM INTO PRISON THEY SCARE ME!”

If you’re a white person, you may chuckle along and be like, “Well, you know, folks are just sensitive, and non-white people should understand that it’s just SO SCARY TO BE WHITE” (after all, it’s not YOU who’s going to get pointed to and detained… right?). I would like to argue basic human decency here, but we’ve been so brainwashed into “othering” everybody who’s non-white and doesn’t speak American that I know that’s not going to fly with a lot of folks. Instead, I’ll remind you that in Nazi Germany, it started with the disabled, and the handicapped… then the gypsies, and the Jews, and then suddenly Nazis were invading foreign countries and declaring their populations Other and we were ALL destined for concentration camps.

This is how Othering works.

No one is “safe.” When you attack “other” people, you’re attacking yourself. When you make the world unsafe for others, you’re making it unsafe for yourself.

You’ve become the administrator of your own terror.

Listen, I’m in marketing. I understand we’ve all been brainwashed. When Obama was running for president, my mother admitted to thinking they were talking about Osama bin Laden all the time, because the only tall, thin, dark-skinned guy she was used to seeing on the news was… Osama bin Laden. We’re inundated with messages that Muslims and non-white people are the enemy. Are somehow not American. We live in a racist society, and we have an incredible history of Othering people so we can treat them like shit that goes way, way, back, from the enslavement of African Americans to the decimation of Native American, to the degrading of the Irish and Jews and Chinese and Japanese concentration camps to more modern-day hatred and fear of anybody who looks vaguely Hispanic (“Those lazy illegals are stealing our jobs!” Once again, if the only vaguely Hispanic people you ever see or know are those featured on TV [always “lazy illegals”!] then you’re just screwed. I get it).

I like to think I was doing OK right up until I moved to South Africa for a while. Why then? Well, because every time I turned on the news, or went to a party, I heard about all the horrible things that had happened to people, and I can tell you now that not once did I ever hear of a violent crime committed by a white person. Every single crime featured was somebody non-white. Now, considering 80% of the country was non-white and the vast majority of those were poor, and the old white government had worked very, very hard to promote black-on-black violence (divide and conquer, once again), this wasn’t *really* odd (though there were, of course, plenty of white folks committing crimes. They just got lost in the shuffle). That stuff just doesn’t go away in a generation. And all of a sudden, I noticed I was a lot more leery of groups of black kids walking down the street than I was of white kids. This was bullshit, and wrong, I knew, but it started to sink in, and I fucking hated it. I did spend a lot of time in areas where I was the *only* white person, and nothing terrible happened to me, so I did use these experiences to draw from when I tried to subvert the racism. “See, Kameron, you’re just racist!”

And, this is the thing, you guys. If you want to NOT be an asshole, the first step is to admit you think racist stuff. Just say it, “Yes, I am a racist! I freak out when a man in a turban sits down next to me on a plane or when somebody starts talking in a non-European language! It scares the crap out of me!”

OK? Cool!

But now what?

Now we start the “how not to be a racist asshole 101″ thing.

Because you don’t want to be a terrorist, right? You don’t want to cause fear and terror in others, right? And get innocent people detained for no reason? And throw innocent people in jail?

RIGHT?

Here’s how to combat that:

STOP ACTING ON YOUR RACIST BULLSHIT.

Find some positive examples of the very signifiers that scare the shit out of you. If you live in a neighborhood full of white people who all look and talk the same as you, you have a long uphill battle. If you’re scared to go places where there aren’t (or are very few) people who are “like” you, then it’s time to crack open a fucking book. Go learn all about Islam. Follow some actual Muslims and non-white people on Twitter (and LISTEN to them. Please, DO NOT talk to them at this point. If you’re at this point in your journey, you are just going to look like an ass). Find positive portrayals of non-white people. Go watch Bend it Like Beckham. Study the leaders of the Civil Rights movement. Come to terms with the fact that we have a non-white President, and get to know more about his family. Read books with non-white protagonists. Is it “the gays” who freak you out? While you’re at it, go read books with positive portrayals of gay characters, and non-white gay characters (and as you start to be more accepting and less judgmental, I guarantee you’ll discover that you do, in fact, already know a lot of gay people. If you were actively hostile in conversations about gay people, this is not a fact of life they’ll share with you. It’s the same with your racist bullshit. If people feel like you’re afraid of them, they’re going to be a lot less likely to approach you).

And this, of course, this re-conditioning process right here, is why we need to promote more positive portrayals of non-white  protagonists in our fiction. Because when we’re confronted with racist thoughts and images, there are whole swaths of people who have absolutely no counter examples that they can pull out to combat it.

If you’re convinced that all Muslim women are oppressed, go read some books by Muslim feminists (yes, they exist! I know!). If you’re convinced that all Hispanics are lazy, go read the actual stories from people who worked their fucking asses off to give their kids a good life and are just as American as your anglo-loving self. Go get to know people who are not “like” you, whether because they’re of a different social standing, from a different country, or whatever. Just… ANYTHING that is different from what you’re used to. Half the time people just freak out because they’ve never been exposed to anyone or anything outside their narrow little peer group. If you don’t want to be a racist jerk, you’re going to have to move outside your comfort zone. At some point, you may even be able to get on a plane and travel somewhere besides North America.

The alternative is to become a terrorist. And you don’t want that, right?

RIGHT?

So, push.

I know there’s such a thing as a white ghetto. I grew up in one. I know the media is racist. I know how marketing works. But goddammit, you don’t need to be a fucking asshole manipulated by the media. You have a goddamn brain. You can circumvent your conditioning. We can be conditioned to do any damn fucking thing, including not being racist. You just need to choose to fight it.

Know what I do when I sit down on a plane and a guy with a turban gets on? I take a deep breath, acknowledge any knee-jerk racist thoughts I might have (less and less these days). Because I don’t personally know any sikhs and the media is still all about Othering people who look “different”, I think instead of  the father in Bend it Like Beckham, and what a great guy he is, and how people discriminated against him, when all he wanted was  to get the best for his daughters and play in a cricket league. Is this simplistic? Absolutely. But does it work? Every time. And when I find myself making assumptions about the woman in the headscarf who sits down in a restaurant near me and starts speaking Arabic with her friend, I think of all the powerful voices of the Muslim feminists I’ve read and followed, and I remember that each of us is a complex individual, and assuming anything about her and her choices and her faith and who she is is not at all my place. I put the positive, individual stories ahead of the negative, racist ones I’ve internalized, and slowly but surely, bit by bit, I get fewer and fewer knee-jerk assumptions about people.

And, more importantly…

I don’t fucking call Homeland Security because a couple of non-white guys on a plane are using the goddamn bathroom.

Because I can tell you right now. WE ARE THE PROBLEM, YOU GUYS. Not “them.” Not “the other.” It’s all of our freaky scaremongering crazy that is turning our own country into a police state. We are doing it to ourselves. We are letting divide and conquer work YET AGAIN.

But we don’t have to. We can take positive steps to combat our conditioning. We can do better. We don’t have to be racist assholes who ruin people’s lives. Because whoever these folks were who freaked out on this woman and the men in her row and the 50 other people who were targeted by scared, freaked out people on September 11th just because they chose to GET ON AN AIRPLANE are the actual terrorists.

We are the terrorists, you guys.

And is that really who you want to be?

 

Why I Don’t Read Much Urban Fantasy

Daniel Abraham had an interesting post up about rape and urban fantasy that I’ve been chewing on for awhile. To sum it, it’s some thoughts on women and power as they’re portrayed in urban fantasy. Or, “urban fantasy is a genre sitting on top of a great big huge cultural discomfort about women and power.”

True and true.

Much of urban fantasy, he argues, exists to explore and unpack – among other things – women’s fear of sexual violence. So the best way to explore the issue of women and power and sexual violence may be to not state it explicitly. After all, once you state a book’s overall theme out loud, “Why yes, I am immune to sexual violence and find it quite liberating, but I am also interested in how it has re-shaped my life” it loses some of its power.

I thought it was an interesting thesis, and mulled on it for awhile. I was reminded of the Buffy episode – one of the most disturbing for me – when she loses her powers (taken away from her by a guy, her mentor, as a test. Talk about worst nightmare) and walks down the street, small and afraid, as a group of guys leers and heckles her. It was a profoundly unsettling moment, to see the heroine you love so much for her physical strength get demoted to, well… a woman like us. She doesn’t confront her hecklers like she would have done when she had her superpowers. She just does what we’ve all done at one time or another – hunches up her shoulders, doesn’t make eye contact, and scurries quickly away back into her house.

What Abraham came to realize over the course of the dialogue that ensued after the post went up was that, actually, urban fantasy and its predecessors (i.e. the warrior woman books of yore – which I have a much firmer grasp on, and will talk about more than UF here) pretty much all explicitly use rape and/or sexual violence in the narrative more than you might think. It’s a big old honkin’ cliché that in order to give your heroine an “excuse” to be violent, you have to give her a good, violent reason – like a past rape or intense fear of sexual violence.

There is a long history of literally weaponizing your heroine in response to attack. It happens to guy characters all the time, too (you know, the ones whose wives and daughters are raped and killed in order to spur him on to revenge. Once again: we all get weaponized in response to rape, which is THE WORSE THING THAT COULD EVER HAPPEN!!).  So on the one hand, powerful female characters are weaponized because their guy counterparts were. The thing is, they’re just more likely to have personally felt the violence themselves in addition to acting out violently in retaliation against violence done to others. We made weaponized women heroes who were also victims. The first couple times you read it, it’s interesting. And then it’s not.

I’m re-reading Jennifer Roberson’s Sword Dancer series right now, which I read back when I was 14 or 16, and there it is right there: the ass-kicking female heroine was raped and her family was killed, which spurs the entire arc of her narrative. She becomes cold and hard and goes on a blood rampage after the guy who raped her and killed her family. Red Sonja gets her powers from rape, too. Ash gets raped. Hell, even Veronica Mars gets raped (yes, yes, I’m mixing my media – stories are stories. I am also reminded of “That was the end of Grogan… the man who killed my father, raped and murdered my sister, burned my ranch, shot my dog, and stole my Bible!”).

In Tamora’s Peirce’s Alanna books, she said she created the character with the explicit intention of NOT having her become a warrior based on past experiences with rape or violence. It was just so incredibly overdone, in her reading experience, that she wanted to do something different. She wanted to create a heroine who wanted to be powerful because it felt right and made her feel powerful, not because of what someone had done to her

One commenter in particular took issue with Abraham’s post, and I followed the dialogue with interest. I didn’t find anything he’d said particularly offensive (not loving UF all that much, myself), though the more I thought about the “books about women and power don’t talk about sexual violence” thing the more it seemed weird to me.

Why’s it weird. Well, because UF exists in a version of this world. Even if you can defend yourself from a rape… you are still going to fear rape. Why? Because, you know, you’re a woman. And our society pretty well grinds it into you from day one that rape is THE WORST THING THAT COULD EVER HAPPEN TO YOU. Worse than dying, even. You see it much more explicitly in other cultures where women are literally stoned to death or hang themselves after being raped, but you still see it here a lot too. There’s a lot of cultural baggage around rape, which is yet another reason women don’t like to report it. If you report it, you’re presumed guilty in one way or another. Even if you didn’t wear a short skirt, and you fought back, and you weren’t walking “somewhere” alone, or going to your car without pepper spray, or whatever reason people make up so they can make it your fault that somebody attacked you, just being raped still carries the stigma of taint. Of badness. Of brokenness. Dishonor.

So, you know: you are going to carry a lot of internalized stigma around about being raped, even if, you know, on some level, your new shiny powers protect you from it.

After much back-and-forth, Abraham’s anonymous commenter got there, too. She said it much more pointedly than I did, tho:

“As a privileged male, you have the unique opportunity to throw yourself into a situation where your power is taken from you. You feel safe, secure. You don’t think of yourself as a victim. You don’t have a cultural script running through your head about how you should act, dress, talk in the same fashion as a real life woman does. In all probability you’ve created a female protag who mimics more of your real life privilege than a real life female.”

I don’t read much urban fantasy, as stated (the heroines have all started to blur together for me), but I’ve suggested Abraham’s MLN books to others, and I had a few people say that it sounded like it was written by a guy – folks who didn’t know who the pseudonym was for. When people say things like this, I always wonder what they mean. Nobody could really articulate it. But I suspect it has something to do with the above. Because even if you’re Superwoman… you’re still a woman. And the world you live in makes certain that you remember it – superpowers be damned.

Urban fantasy is, indeed, about women and power. Learning to wield it. Negotiate it. Have meaningful relationships while wielding it. In a world where women are starting to make as much or more money than men (in some areas), and are pushing ahead in terms of formal education, this weird power sharing is something we’re all trying to negotiate in real life, too.

Why are guys so intimidated by strong women? Not even Mad Men knows.  But urban fantasy books are interested in exploring those themes, too.

The thing is, even with all this perceived power, we still have a lot of cultural baggage trying to push us back down. Outdated ideas about virgins and whores, continued hysteria over what women do with their uteruses, sexual violence and the stigma around it (still primarily for women – when was the last time you heard the epithet “rapist” used against a guy in a negative way?), tricky power negotiations, social baggage around pregnancy and taking time off to be with your kids, stigma around being a stay-at-home mom and stigma about being a working mom (basically, if you’re a woman, you must be doing SOMETHING wrong), and etc.

Having superpowers doesn’t peel away all the social baggage. In fact, it actually HIGHLIGHTS the social baggage so it stands out starkly and ridiculously for what it is. Superpowers say, “Hey, I’m buff and tough, so… why do I still think all these made-up rules apply to me? Why do I still care so much about being skinny and having a boyfriend?”

It’s a lot easier to critique society when you obviously no longer fit within its confines. It’s also easier to talk about how lonely you are in it because you don’t fit in it.

So, women and sexual violence. A lot more of it in your woman-power fantasies than you might think. Because, women with superpowers are still women.

Which, if you think about it, is also a really good sum up of women’s places now: We can make our own money, get great high-power jobs, take boxing classes, mouth off, have sex outside of marriage (and even enjoy it!) and take on all the trappings of power… but… well… at the end of the day, we are still women – and being called “Women” means we get to deal with all that that means to our culture. And there are still men (and other women) who go to great pains to remind us of this, and who try and use those reminders to strip away our power.

Now, all that said, and understanding Anon’s issues with a guy boldly stating that his heroine just wasn’t going to worry about rape because she was just never going to get raped cause of her powers… I have to say that I’ve got a pretty similar stance in my fiction – though I’ve had to take my heroines off this planet in order to do it in a way that I feel is believable, sadly.

I have that stance in direct reaction against the “strong woman got raped and now she’s allowed to be violent!” cliché. I prefer working in worlds where rape carries no stigma. Or carries some other stigma (preferably a horrifically negative one for, you know, the person perpetrating the crime as opposed to the victim). I want worlds where rape makes no sense. Where it’s not a weapon of war or control. It’s a violent thing, certainly, but not socially acceptable as it is in this society (yes, it is. I just skimmed some recent rom-com where the heroine turns down our hero half a dozen times – he shows up at her work, her apartment, and calls her a lot. She turns him down every time. Then, at time number eight, changes her mind and they hook up. What message is this kind of story sending to guys? Mass media still markets “passion” and “romance” to guys as “not giving up when she says no.” And then we all wonder why there’s a disconnect).

Committing sexual violence – which is a particular type of violence that goes out of its way to remind women that they’re women, and Other – has ridden off into the world of cliché for me. No doubt that, as Anon says, these books are helpful for survivors of abuse, which is still 1 in 4 in this country. They help us realize that yes, in fact, life does go on, and we can grieve, and go forward.

But I’m tired of reading about abused women. My master’s thesis looked at how the African National Congress recruited female fighters during the war against apartheid. I have stacks and stacks of real-life stories about violence perpetrated against women in every country. I’m a feminist blogger, and read the stats and facts and figures every day. I get images of women being abused all the time. Yes, it’s real life. Yes, terrible things happen.

But that’s not all there is to life. And I feel that seeing only negative images of women – of women abused, hurt, scared, exploited, harrassed – every day all the time is only going to make you hate being a woman even more.

Think about that. If all you ever saw about, say, an imaginary country called Valynna were sad, unhappy people, would you want to become a citizen of Valynna? What if you already were a citizen? Would you feel better or worse about being a member of that country if all you saw all the time was the worst of what could happen to you?

I made a conscious choice in my work on this blog waaaay back in 2004 that I wasn’t going to post images of women being abused. I was going to post images of happy women, strong women, powerful women, successful women. Yes, I would talk about the unique challenges we have, the abuses, the power struggles, the objectification, but I carefully chose those sidebar images to portray strong, vibrant, happy women. I am tired to see suffering women all the time. Because though it may be *a* truth, it is not *the* truth, any more than any one experience stands in for all experiences.

When I look for heroines, I look for heroines who choose violence as a tool because it works for them, not because it’s thrust upon them. I want heroines who are powerful for power’s sake. Who are honestly, truly, really, scary. Not sexy-scary. Not girl-next-door-scary. But genuinely someone who you’d be terrified to bump into in a dark alley. Because they are so good and unapologetic about what they do.

And I just don’t find that in any believable character in UF. Not anybody who’s got an interesting setting, at any rate. Because the setting… our world, even Changed… is still our world. With all the same bullshit.

Joanna Russ once said that the reason she started writing science fiction was because it was the genre where you were allowed to imagine how “things can be really different.”

UF lets us address issues of power and sex and violence as women in a changing world. Our changing world. I deal with that every day. I’m not so interested in writing it or reading it.

What I’m interested in is what makes us women. And who we’d be… with the same parts… but somewhere else. I want to pull off all the baggage and put on some different loads and see how people interact. I am tired of rape and leering and cat calls and expectations to have kids or not, or get married or not, or whatever.

I want to imagine how things could be really different.

My turnoff with UF is pretty much the exact opposite of what Abraham argued as being not there (or what shouldn’t be there): women in these books are still bound by the cultural rules of being women, including the threat of sexual violence. They are merely exceptions when people know about their powers. If they don’t know about their powers, they are still going to be treated like women. And though there is endless delight in watching them combat people’s stereotypes, there are still far too many of those moments when the heroine creeps away into the night, hunching her shoulders, leery of cat-calls.

It’s a not-fun world. An uncomfortable world. A world we’re certainly working on making a better place.

But not the world I’m primarily interested in writing my spec fiction in.

Because it’s the world I have to live in and write non-fiction about every day.

I am tired of seeing women getting beat up and crapped on. I want to imagine something different.

Defenders of shows like Dollhouse would say that you have to show all the bad stuff before you show the rebellion against it. I respect that.

Trouble is, people get lost a lot in the bad stuff, and they forget why it was it was bad in the first place. Instead of being “bad” it just becomes the “norm.”