Sign up here to get info on new releases and giveaways!

Posts Tagged ‘The F Word’

Dear SFWA Writers: Let’s Chat About Censorship & Bullying

So. I get it. The world used to agree with you. You used to be able to say things like, “I really like those lady writers in this industry, especially in swimsuits!” and your fellow writers, editors, agents, and other assorted colleagues would all wink and grin and agree with you, and Asimov would go around pinching women’s asses, and it was so cool! So cool that he could just sexually assault women all the time! You used to be able to say, “Black people are fine. As long as they are clean and don’t live in my neighborhood,” and your friends and colleagues would wink and grin and agree with you. You’d say, “Gay men are gay because they were abused, and all lesbians are really bisexual and just need the love of a good man,” and hey, it was Ok, because no one disagreed with you.

You came to believe that what you believed, and what you said, was true. It was the narrative. You felt happy and self-important about it, because you got it. Sure, you were tolerant. You accepted everyone! You just told it like it was. You stated your opinion. Maybe sometimes people said stuff like, “Well, maybe that’s kind of racist” but you just waved your hand and bellowed, “I’m not a racist!” and then stopped inviting them to parties. Problem solved.

In fact, everyone you knew agreed with you when you said these things, or, if they didn’t agree, they grinned and winked and gritted their teeth instead. In fact, a lot more of them likely gritted their teeth and bore it than you could ever imagine. But by stating your opinion without getting disagreement or pushback, a funny thing happened. You started to believe that your narrative was the only narrative. That your opinion was the sound one. The only one. Absolute, untouchable truth.

2013-01-15 12_57_31

Well, welcome to 2013. And the world wide web, where everybody, even those underprivileged nobodies you never had to listen to before, has a chance to be heard.

Surprise. Not everybody agrees with you. In fact, many have not agreed with you for a long, long time and because you lived such an insulated life, only talking on forums with the same old people, about the same old things, you started to believe that nobody disagreed with you. You’d never even experienced what it was like to have the very people you were denigrating say to you, out loud, “You’ve gravely disrespected me.” And if they did, they were just humorless bitches, and nobody wanted to work with them anyway, and they weren’t in any power to impact your career, being little bitches and all, so you didn’t pay any real attention.

That was your privilege.

Worse, because you likely occupied a place of power in the hierarchy of the publishing industry, having a lot of books under your belt and a lot of contacts, nobody publicly disagreed with you. They feared the repercussions. They knew that you and your little groups of established pros could ruin their careers. They knew you’d call them mad, humorless, and not somebody fun to be around or do business with. So they sucked it up. They smiled. They played along. They drank whiskey and made fun of other women with you. You may not even have realized it. Because that was your privilege.

In order to do business in a biased, sexist, racist, fucked up industry, you have to plaster on your smile and nod when people say the most outrageously disrespectful, fucked-up things about you and people like you. When these dudes tell you it’s nice that you write novels but it sure would be nice if you had better tits so they could put you in bikini armor and slap you on the cover of their industry magazine for their buddies to leer at, you just smile, ha-ha isn’t that funny and get them another beer because you’re desperate to be in their upcoming anthology. Yes, I have a sense of humor! Please don’t boot me from this organization! I want to make this my career, so I will smile at every disrespectful sexist thing you say and pretend it’s totally hilarious! Because this is what I’ve been trained to do. It’s how I get ahead. It’s the only way.

I know this from experience. This blog has a lot more fucking teeth before I started publishing books.

And while these women or people of color are smiling at you they’re actively writing their own stories, and growing their own audiences, and hoping for the day when everybody finally stands up and says, “You know, actually, disrespecting half your colleagues and reducing them to a pair of tits or collection of bigoted stereotypes isn’t OK.”

But why? You might ask. Why’d people grin and bear it? Folks, we have to grin and bear it in an organization where 48 people voted for an organizational president who wanted to disenfranchise half the electorate. Women’s right to vote. In my own industry. In the one that pays me to write books. 48 people who were happy to publicly endorse turning me into a non-human. How many more were sympathetic to this? How many that I don’t know about?

I’m not immune to criticism on the internet. I’m from a privileged population, too. I’m white, and American, and middle class. I am adept at getting yelled at from all sorts of people. I’ve had people angry with me about racist and homophobic tropes they identified in my books, people brave enough to stand up and say, “You know what? This thing you did here? Did you see that? It’s not OK. It hurt.”

And you know what? That is not censorship. That is brave.

Let me tell you something about censorship and bullying. Because I’ve experienced that – what that REALLY is, too. Bullying censorship is death threats and sexual threats. Endless ones. Endless on a scale you cannot even imagine. It’s coordinated attacks from people who really would rather you were dead than keep talking on the internet. Dead and raped, preferably.

People get angry. Nobody has to agree with you anymore. Nobody is afraid of you anymore. I know this may come as a massive shock to folks used to a position of power, insulated by groups of people who are happy to stroke their egos and soothe their souls. Truth be told, many of these people don’t even *feel* like they’re in power. I know I never do. But it’s time to face the fact that people disagree with you, and that’s their right.

I have dealt with people actually trying to silence me from the moment I posted my first blog post in 2004. And because of that, I find myself deeply offended to hear you equating some folks saying, “You know, maybe my industry magazine should be a little more respectful of all of its members, not just the dudes,” that you say you’re targeted by some massive witchhunt meant to emasculate a bunch of dudes who are used to everyone agreeing with them in every way imaginable. Your insistence that your’e being bullied by Nazis trivializes the actual bullying, death threats, and sexual threats people get in this industry simply for asking to be treated like human beings.

Here are some tips on how to take criticism, real criticism, on the internet, from somebody who has been dealing with both sides of this for a decade:

Start actually listening. For once in your privileged life, listen. Listen. Because if I punched you, and you said “Gosh, that really hurt” and I said, “YOU ARE FUCKING CENSORING ME YOU FUCKING COMMUNIST” you’d think I was insane.

Listen. Do better. Understand privilege and power. Understand why people didn’t speak up before. Why you didn’t hear it before. If you hit somebody, and you really didn’t mean to would you say, “Well, it’s your fault for having tits?” or would you say “I’m so sorry I hit you. That wasn’t my intention. I will actively work to not hit you in the future.”

I know what somebody who was genuinely interested in open, honest, respectful dialogue with people they considered humans and colleagues would do.

 

“We Have Always Fought” Guest Post at A Dribble of Ink

I invite you to check out this guest post I did over at A Dribble of Ink on women fighters:

art-by-brenoch-adams-2I’m going to tell you a story about llamas. It will be like every other story you’ve ever heard about llamas: how they are covered in fine scales; how they eat their young if not raised properly; and how, at the end of their lives, they hurl themselves – lemming-like- over cliffs to drown in the surging sea. They are, at heart, sea creatures, birthed from the sea, married to it like the fishing people who make their livelihood there.

Every story you hear about llamas is the same. You see it in books: the poor doomed baby llama getting chomped up by its intemperate parent. On television: the massive tide of scaly llamas falling in a great, majestic herd into the sea below. In the movies: bad-ass llamas smoking cigars and painting their scales in jungle camouflage.

Because you’ve seen this story so many times, because you already know the nature and history of llamas, it sometimes shocks you, of course, to see a llama outside of these media spaces. The llamas you see don’t have scales. So you doubt what you see, and you joke with your friends about “those scaly llamas” and they laugh and say, “Yes, llamas sure are scaly!” and you forget your actual experience.

What you remember is the llama you saw who had mange, which sort of looked scaly, after a while, and that one llama who was sort of aggressive toward a baby llama, like maybe it was going to eat it. So you forget the llamas that don’t fit the narrative you saw in films, books, television – the ones you heard about in the stories – and you remember the ones that exhibited the behavior the stories talk about. Suddenly, all the llamas you remember fit the narrative you see and hear every day from those around you.  You make jokes about it with your friends. You feel like you’ve won something. You’re not crazy. You think just like everyone else.

And then there came a day when you started writing about your own llamas. Unsurprisingly, you didn’t choose to write about the soft, downy, non-cannibalistic ones you actually met, because you knew no one would find those “realistic.” You plucked out the llamas from the stories. You created cannibal llamas with a death wish, their scales matted in paint.

It’s easier to tell the same stories everyone else does. There’s no particular shame in it.

It’s just that it’s lazy, which is just about the worst possible thing a spec fic writer can be.

Oh, and it’s not true.

READ THE REST

Burt Wonderstone and the Pitfalls of “Ironic” Misogyny

NOTE: some spoilers, sexual assault triggers

I went out last night to see the Incredible Burt Wonderstone, a cute little movie about a couple old-school buddy magicians dueling with Criss-Angel-stand-in Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) for fame and fortune.

It was all right. I’ve lost my patience with people who hate everything. It had some funny moments, and everyone seemed to be having a lot of fun. But there’s this thing about modern stories that once you see it, you can’t unsee it.

There is one female character in the entire show. The only people of color are shown as starving people without food or clean water who live in some unnamed foreign village. What’s almost worst here is that the show realized it had one female character, so made obvious attempts to give her something outside of being a love interest or minor bling for someone else’s story, but sadly, just ended up making it even more glaringly obvious that no one considered her human. The the addition of brown people was so they could supply a dues-ex-machina plot device. They were there for the magic, silly. Oh goody.

Burt Wonderstone is a jaded Vegas magician working with his best friend Anton. Together, they do the same old hackneyed tricks they’ve always done. They’ve lost their love and awe of magic, the sort they had as kids. Burt goes out of his way to be an asshole. He’s mean to his friends, mean to his staff, and purposely demeans their magician’s assistant, Nicole, until she leaves in the middle of a performance. He then demands that they disrobe one of the techs and that she stand in as their showgirl for the rest of the show. The woman, Jane, is literally stripped down to her underwear, thrown the old showgirl’s wig, and tossed on stage, where Burt proceeds to hit on her in the most creepy way possible, even after her repeated “no”s.

He ends up taking an audience member to bed instead, whom he has sign a waver where she acknowledges that she in consenting to have sex with him, presumably because women have accused him of rape before, something not at all inconceivable based on his repeated harassment of Jane. Burt is an asshole rapist in the worst way, continually pursuing Jane throughout much the show, and belittling her talent even as he asks her for help after his show is cancelled at Bally’s and his finds himself broke. Even with her hero worship, I could not imagine her putting up with this.

Jane turns out to have literally a few tricks up her sleeve and demonstrates to Burt than she is a passable magician. She even offers to be his partner since he parted ways with Anton, but he refuses based purely on the fact that she’s a woman and women don’t do magic. Now, this is all done tongue-in-cheek. There is an assumption here that, we, the audience, are supposed to acknowledge that Burt is being an idiot dinosaur. But I just could not believe that somebody who was born in 1973 would so seriously and blatantly say the sorts of things that he said. But then, maybe I’m unfamiliar with Hollywood egos. I’ve heard people are pretty outspoken asssholes.

The-Incredible-Burt-Wonderstone_08

The trouble with this entire exchange was that movie conventions had me assuming that Jane was supposed to be Burt’s love interest. I was sitting stiff and uncomfortable through every scene these two people had together, and though I’ve certainly had an abusive boyfriend who coerced me into sex and did indeed speak about women in this way, I haven’t been violently sexually assaulted. I can only imagine what folks with more brutal attacks from these kinds of guys were feeling while watching this kind of set up.

It turns out that Burt and Jane don’t end up getting it on romantically, so there’s a thumbs up for common sense, but the threat was there the whole time, this expectation that I was supposed to feel sympathy for an asshole rapist because he really liked magic and was down on his luck. (NOTE: my partner tells me that they did, in fact, get it on when I got up to go to the bathroom. GAAAAAHHHHH. This is so incredibly fucked up in a show that says “don’t do violent magic because kids might copy you!” but then shows women hooking up with abusive men without a second thought)

Turns out that while down on his luck, he ends up entertaining at a nursing home, and meets his boyhood crush, a famous magician who, through a short montage, apparently teaches him to love magic again. After this montage, Burt also apologizes to Jane for his rude behaviour, and she quite literally forgives him for all of womankind that he’s insulted and assaulted, “On behalf of all the Nicoles, I forgive you.”

I suppose we’re supposed to assume it’s all water under bridge now, and sympathize with him now?

See, here’s the thing. I like asshole characters. I think they’re interesting. I write a lot of them. What squiks me out is this idea of the redemptive asshole. Like, the asshole mass murderer apologizes, finds Jesus, and we’re supposed to forget about and forgive everything that’s come before, even when there has been no real clear journey toward an epiphany. It was just like, “Hey, I’m poor now, so I learned my lesson. Forgive me and sleep with me!”

Anybody who’s been in an abusive relationship knows this cycle. The guy (usually a guy) does some horrible thing, then when you threaten to leave he weeps and apologizes and says he won’t do it again and he’s learned his lesson. You might have a good couple weeks after this, but then he does some other horrible thing, and the cycle repeats.

Eventually, Burt and Anton get back together, and with Jane’s help (always help, assistance, never actual “hey I came up with this idea!” just “yes I will help you execute that!”) come up with a pretty ridiculous deus ex machina of a trick that reminds us of why there were any starving brown people at all shown in the movie – to support the telling of somebody else’s story, of course.

I actually had to get up and leave the theater when they came up with this “plan” because I found it so annoyingly appropriating.

Now, I don’t want to hate all over this movie. Back in those wonderful pre-college days when I watched every movie pretending that I was a man and I was, indeed, being talked to and invited to participate as a man in men’s stories, I think this would have annoyed me a lot less. When you grow up telling yourself that you’re not a femme person like THOSE women, it’s easier to watch stories where women are relegated to the sidelines as mere supporters of boys. It’s easier to digest casual misogyny, because you think, well, they’re not talking about ME, but what I learned after going out into the big wide world is that, in fact, the world DID see me as a woman just like in the stories, and it treated me like one. Why? Because these are the stories we watch. Because these are the templates we use to tell people how to act toward one another. It’s how we prioritize stories.

So, you know, it’s a fun little movie about dueling magicians. There are some genuinely laugh-out-loud funny moments. It was even co-written by John Francis Daley of Freaks and Geeks (and Bones) fame, but then, seeing the other problems that those associated with Apatow have with the portrayal of women and non-white people in their films, I shouldn’t be surprised at these huge blindspots.

You know, I think it was almost worse because this film did a nudge-nudge wink-wink to the audience so that they KNEW what they were doing with lines such as: “I said “no offense” before I told you women can’t be magicians, so you can’t take offense!” and “it turned out starving people wanted food and clean water, not magic.” It knew very well what it was doing. So it acknowledged it and then handwaved it anyway.

That was the worst. I may have preferred unexamined knee-jerk misogyny to intentional misogyny.  At least with unintentional misogyny and racism, you can say you didn’t realize what you did. But putting obvious dialogue flags in there just makes it worse. It’s like, “Yes, I know this is sexist, racist, and problematic and lazy, but I’m going to do it anyway! For laughs!”

The thing was, those were the least funny parts of the whole film, because they were tired. The best parts were between Burt and Anton and the other magicians. You know, all the boys-boys this film was actually about. It’s like, instead of putting in real characters to interact with them, they threw in this stereotypes instead, and it brought the whole movie down.

When you’ve dealt with abusive people, and when every movie you watch has some woman in it being raped or coerced into sex or sold into sex slavery or who’s “just” the wife or girlfriend of the “hero”, seeing it again in yet another movie is exhausting. Everybody says of their film or book or story, “It’s just this ONE story!” But it’s not. It’s this one story and the one before it. And after it. And the 50 before it. And the 100 before that.

As a reader, as a consumer, as a human with female sex parts, I am really tired of this kind of lazy storytelling that absolutely ruins films that could otherwise be pretty enjoyable. If your sexist, rapey protagonist has half your audience frozen up in their seats and excusing themselves to go to the bathroom so they don’t have to put up with what they put up with in real life in their escapist media as well, you’re doing something wrong. You’re a bad storyteller.

Full stop.

LeGuin, Boys’ Own Adventure, and the Fine Art of Genderfucking

NOTE: This post was originally published on the Feminist SF blog in 2006 or so. It was pretty popular at the time, but has been difficult to find these days, so I dug up the cache and am re-posting here. Despite being tempted (the “terrorism” bit is… interesting), I have left it unedited.

Almost without fail, Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness gets praised (and praised, and praised) as the most groundbreaking book on gender relations ever written in the SF/F field. I’m always hearing about how it changed so-and-so’s whole world, their entire conception of gender. You can’t throw a stone at a Wiscon panel without hitting somebody who gushes about this book.

This book was written in 1968.

And nothing else written since has carved such a significant place for itself in both popularity and sheer genderfucking.

I repeat: this book was written in 1968

And there’s no other book anyone’s ever talked to me about that fucked with their ideas about gender in the same way this one did – at least, not any book that was as wildly popular as LHoD.

This has been bugging me for a long time. In the last 38 years, no other book has been as widely read and as radical as LHoD?

Are we just not writing good genderfuck books? That can’t be it. You see genderfuck books on Tiptree lists every year (well, *most* of the books on the Tiptree lists. heh heh).

But where’s the book that’s going to change an entire generation’s conceptions of gender? LHoD is great, but I’d hope that over the next 50 years we’re passing around several books of the same popularity and significance as LHoD. I’d hope we’d be producing stuff that’s just as well thought out, that we can’t help but read, talk about, and watch go mainstream.

Which begs the question, what’s missing from all these other genderfucking books?

I’d say: great writing, traditional adventure (plot), accessibility.

Because that’s what Le Guin did – she gave us an apparently “safe” boys’ own adventure story from the POV of a hetero white male. Then she pulled us in and started dropping bombs. It’s the same strategy she used in Wizard of Earthsea: you don’t find out Ged’s skin color until you’re well enough along in the story. If reading about somebody of a different color might have bothered you up front, you’re hopefully too deep into it to care by the time she reveals it.

When asked about whether she would have written LHoD differently – perhaps more radically – if she wrote it today, Le Guin reminded the speaker that the book was already pretty damn radical for 1968.

It was a funny question, because you know what? It’s not up to LeGuin to write the next radical feminist book.

If the most radical and popular feminist fiction came from a white, heterosexual mother of three in 1968, what does that say about the current state of feminist SF? And the current writers? (oh, relax, I include *myself* in this category) Why are we still asking her to write and rewrite it for us? Are we all still wallowing in a post-1980s backlash (oh, fuck, to be stuck in the 80s!), or is Le Guin just so incredibly talented that you only get that mix of great writer/great thinker/great feminist once every fifty years?

Cause if that’s so, that’s really fucking depressing.

On the feminist SF list I belong to, one list member asked if perhaps Le Guin’s book was so popular because it wasn’t actually as radical as we might think. It was very safe. The hetero male protagonist doesn’t have sex with any of the planet’s inhabitants, no matter their current gender. We go off on a boys’ own adventure story, on a planet entirely populated by people referred to as “he,” no matter their gender. Le Guin is a natural storyteller, and she concentrates on the story. It’s not overly didactic. It’s engaging and entertaining.

Stuff like Egalia’s Daughters might have some far more radical ideas, but it’s got shitty characters, inconsistent prose quality (if you could call it “prose”), and bizarre POV shifts. Also: not really an adventure story. Also: silly ending.

Joanna Russ’s The Female Man pretty much consistently Freaks People Out. Especially those uncomfortable with her angry writing (I LOVE the angry writing, but I’d bet that’s a lot of why she’s not as popular as LeGuin, though her body of work is also much, much smaller).

As for more recent stuff: Wen Spencer’s A Brother’s Price was simple romance-role-reversal fluff reading, and ultimately about as filling as cotten candy. Candas Jane Dorsey’s Black Wine is brilliant and haunting and weird, but it’s a weirdness that also makes a more mainstream audience uncomfortable. Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite comes closest to the adventure-feminism-good writing combination, but ultimately, she’s writing about another all-female planet, and it was ground I felt Russ had already covered pretty well in The Female Man and When it Changed. I also love everything Maureen McHugh has written, but her plots aren’t traditional “plots” and her endings tend to taper off instead of tie up. Eleanor Arnason does some very non-traditional things with her story structure as well (another author who seems to be playing with traditional notions of “adventure” plotting), and I think that’s a turnoff for a wider readership (I’d like to add that not having a wider readership does nothing to invalidate the work of these authors or their work. I love their work. I’m simply trying to understand why LHoD and not these others as “book that totally changed the ENTIRE SF/F FIELD AND MY LIFE!”?).

To be honest, LHoD has just never done it for me. Le Guin is one of the most talented writers in and outside the field, but I’ve always found her fiction a little dry (I prefer her nonfiction). She’s never been as radical as Russ, nor as angry (in writing, at least), and it’s the anger I especially identify with in Russ’s work – that anger that so terrifies and puts off so many others.

It’s my own ambivalence toward Le Guin’s fiction that’s made me so curious about why LHoD is still held up as the primary book about speculative genderfucking. Certainly, it should be part of the SF/F feminist fiction canon, the first groundbreaking book.

But where’s that other groundbreaking book? Not just one rich in radical ideas, but so well told and well-respected that it enjoys a wide and fanatic readership?

You could argue that that sort of book builds up a reputation over time, but I can’t help but note that 15 or 20 years should be plenty of time for something written 15 or 20 years ago to come into its own. And I’m not seeing that.

Are there not enough good SF/F storytellers? Not enough good storytellers writing about radical feminism/gender/body politics?

Or, you know, is feminism just so five minutes ago that we’re all content to write about strong female heroines who are just assumed to be “equal” in whatever made-up society we throw together – where men are men and women are men, too?

Cause if that’s radical feminism, I’d love to see what we’d call a body of work today that was written in the same angry, brutal vein as Russ’s fiction.

We’d probably call it terrorism.

And that would be really, really cool.

Boys with babies and women with knives: Rethinking gender assumptionist power structures

I have been meaning to write a response to this article by Ursula LeGuin for some time. Needless to say, when she says stuff like, “It’s amazing, given their different physiology and complement of hormones, how much alike men and women are in most ways,” I want to tear my hair out. This stuff comes off like somebody saying, “Hey, it’s remarkable that men and women are so… so… human! Like, together. Like, the same species.” This is why I prefer Joanna Russ over LeGuin.

LeGuin goes on to say:  “it seems to be the fact that women on the whole have less direct competitive drive and desire to dominate; and therefore, paradoxically, have less need to bond with one another in ranked, exclusive groups.”

It’s one of those assertions that makes me wonder what sorts of groups of women LeGuin hung out with when she was young. There’s a reason movies like “Heathers” and “Mean Girls” and “Clueless” are so popular. Women organize themselves into competitive groups all the time. It’s just that the acceptable ways for women to be competitive are different than they are for men in this particular society. And when you take away a lot of those restrictions, when you put women into the same kind of competitive atmosphere as men in stuff like violent sports, you start to see pretty similar competitive behavior (including some of the misogyny).

This is the part LeGuin takes great issue with – by joining in with the competive power structures of men, women have begun to organize themselves like men, and are now displaying all the nasty negative things that guys do who participate in this hierarchy.

It’s this little nugget of the essay that I agree with wholeheartedly, and it’s something I explore a lot in GOD’S WAR and the other violent matriarchies I build in my fiction. By participating in certain kinds of power structures, people will find themselves becoming the very monsters they hoped to vanquish. Looking into the abyss, and all that.

My argument has always been that there are certain types of hierarchical structures that just naturally turn people into assholes, and if we tell people that organizing themselves into those structures is how to get ahead, they’ll do it. It doesn’t have anything to do with women having more “fluid” social structures than men.  If we told guys that the way to get ahead was to stop being assholes and building hierarchies and instead pushed hard on non-heirarchical ways of ordering societies, we could do it. There have been, historically, plenty of societies that have done so. It just so happens that colonialism built very good hierarchies so it could conquer the world, and we’re still mucking around in the aftermath of that, desperately flailing for alternative ways of organizing ourselves. But are these inherently male structures? I’m not so sure, and I think we should think long and hard before we make that kind of gendered assumption.

I’m reminded of the story of the group of monkeys that encountered a big poisoned dump of goodies. Because the strong, aggressive male monkeys ate first and most, they all died off, leaving the alpha females and young males to rebuild the troop. In the absence of aggressive hierarchy, they rebuilt their entire troop as a matriarchy and banded together to run off any encroaching aggressive males who stuck to the old hierarchy model. The males that stayed were the ones they deemed acceptable to the new, less hierarchical structure.  They were able to rebuild their society in a less hierarchical way because the old hierarchy was abolished.

Lots of folks hear that story and think, “Well, yeah, the females were in charge now, and they’re naturally more fluid and crap in their social structures, so they rebuilt it in a way that’s more feminine.” But I’d argue that it was the fact that females were victims of the abuse of a hierarchy that challenged them to rethink it.

Women have traditionally been oppressed and enslaved in societies. Women who break out of this role may in fact go on to oppress and enslave other women as well because they stay in a society that values people based on how many people they oppress, but if you were somebody who was oppressed and suddenly found yourself in a society without oppression, would you really seek out to oppress and enslave others the way you’d been? (NOTE: edited this paragraph for improved clarity)

I don’t object to the rejection of heirachical structures, of course, I just reject the idea that hierarchical structures are instrinsicly a male thing hardwired into a guy on his Y chromosome. I think we use abusive power structures because they are a very fast and easy way to get a desired result (long term, they are far less stable).  So to LeGuin’s question: “Can women operate as women in a male institution without becoming imitation men?” I’d say “Of course.”

Our construction of what constitutes feminine social structures and ways of being are also socially constructed. Women are not naturally nurturing. All babies are inherently selfish. We have to learn empathy. A good many of us – male and female – remain stuck in adolescence in a culture that does not encourage us to be socially responsible, unselfish, and cooperative. America in the 21st century is a special case, not a norm; we’re acting like spoiled Americans, not “men.” Because when you break down what exactly “man” and “male” is, it’s just as tricky a definition of what “woman” and “female” is.

Much of the essay seems to lament a loss of a dream – the dream shared not only by feminists of the day but by the sort of free love hippy utopia ideals shared by the radicals and rebels and communists/socialists and commune-builders of the time – both men and women – who sought to create a non-heirarchal, fluid society where folks governed their societies in truly democratic/ideal communist ways.

This is truly something to mourn, and to question, but let’s not pretend that it’s some magical idea that bubbled up from the magical DNA women get when they have wombs. It was a radical rethinking by a people tired of being oppressed whose generation was just waking up, for the first time, to its own subjugation and looking for a better way.

Like LeGuin, I agree that we should continue to question dominant definitions of power and value, because our current system is based on Othering a great deal of people. One can only be powerful today by depriving others of agency. Interdependence, though, is already the way life works – it’s how eight million people can live in a single city. What’s missing is our awareness and celebration of our own interdependence, and to me, that is a very American oversight, not necessarily an oversight that comes with being born with a penis (though if you’re born with that privilege, of course, you’re even more likely to be blind to this interdependence – my argument is simply that creating hierarchical structures is not somehow carried by a Y chromosome; it is a social construct that we’re born into and that men, being closer to the top of this particular hierarchy in this society because of their gender, or going to be more likely to support).

So if I generally agree with LeGuin that hierarchies are bad and men certainly benefit from them more than women, and that as women join them, they will also probably become assholes, just assholes with wombs who have more reason to push for for universal childcare and contraception, why am I taking issue with LeGuin’s wording that building these power structures is somehow intrinsic to one’s DNA instead of a social construct we support based on our gender?

Because it’s arguments like LeGuin’s that people use when building worlds full of passive women and aggressive men. “Women are just naturally nurturing people who value interdependence” and “men are just naturally aggressive people who prefer unequal power structures” are statements that let people get away with lazy writing and worldbuilding. They think, “Well, if women are naturally this way, I certainly couldn’t create a society of violent women without radically altering their DNA” or “Surely I can’t create an egalitarian society or society that actually has men in it who don’t abuse people without castrating all of them.”

That’s bullshit.

I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time researching war, atrocities, women fighters, rebel armies, and regular military training and operations, and I can tell you right now – men are not naturally killers. Fewer than 20% of the men who went off to WWI even fired their guns. They couldn’t shoot a stranger in the face, even if they were being shot at. The reason the U.S. reached a 95% fire rate in the Vietnam War was due do intensive training and indoctrination of troops (and that STILL means that 5% of the guys who went to Vietnam never shot their weapons at the enemy during combat). We teach men and women how to kill others. We desensitize them. There’s an entire other language we use in war that distances us from the actual people we kill, which is why they’re “insurgents” or “japs” or “ragheads” or “targets” and not “people.” It’s why we’ve come to prefer drones and killing people from afar over shooting people in the face. Studies have shown we’re psychologically a lot better off when we murder a million people from a mile away than a single kid with a gun to the face (of course, the kid still dies).  Without “official” stats for women in combat in this country (cause women aren’t “officially” in combat in this country, right? Right? Ha, yeah), I can’t make a comparison, but after researching women who worked as part of guerilla armies, I can tell you the experiences seem to be about the same no matter your gender (in fact, as I recall, firing rates in rebel armies tend to be higher overall than traditional armies because the people have a stronger belief in their cause and motivation to kill). The extra fun bit you get as a female soldier is that you have to deal with sexual abuse from your fellow soldiers (which is a whole other rant). But a gun is a gun, and killing a person is killing a person.

Anyone who’s actually been a mother or had serious, frank discussions with mothers also knows that being some beautific, unselfish, nurturing person 24/7 to your child is a myth. Not all women love their children. Not all women like their children. Not all women want to have children. And those who do have children and love them often feel intense guilt for wanting just five minutes or even five whole days to themselves. Even women who love their children sometimes hate them. That’s the actual, natural reality. Mothers are people, not symbiotic extensions of their children. And though women  have absolutely banded together into interdependent groups, they have, as any high schooler knows, also successfully banded into very hierarchical ones. And let’s not even get into that whole crazy soccer moms, pageant moms, and PTA meeting, non-profit and certain volunteer organizations today where we generally see a higher female-to-male participation ratio (these being activities that we, as a culture, encourage women to embrace).  If you think women are naturally nice people, try listening in to the politics of a group of MA’s at a medical practice or mostly female teachers and tell me that nobody is gunning for anybody else. Women can be just as competitive and underhanded and manipulative as men; sometimes even more so, because we learn early that outright aggression gets us shunned and shut down. We have to think of smarter, more manipulative ways to get what we want, and hence, the stereotype of the scheming woman throughout history. When you’re not allowed to settle a score by hitting somebody in the face because aggression could get you thrown into a mental institution (yes, really), you’re going to find other ways.

But.

But in other societies the ways that we’re allowed to manifest our own will based on gender may be different. It may not be OK for guys to get into fights to “settle” things. There may be no rape culture because society considers it repugnant (no, our society doesn’t – it’s still seen as a grab-and-conquer-manly thing for guys). It may be seen as vaguely worrisome if a woman devotes every waking moment to the care and feeding of her children instead of going out into a fighting ring (hey, you never know. Figuring out a world where that happened and it made sense could be fun. Uh. Not that I’d know anything about that…).  Your people could even totally live in an egalitarian society where men and women are expected to raise children communally, with an equal share in childcare, and women build the boats and men carry the water and women cook the food and men make the clothes. Or maybe the society doesn’t organize things by gender at all, and lo, people just do whatever it is they have wont to do, and society expects nothing of them, no matter what’s between their legs or what clothes they want to wear.

It’s funny because whenever you challenge somebody to look around at the people in their lives who don’t fit dominant expectations of what men and women should be doing, they come up with hundreds of examples. But ask them to construct fictional worlds that contain that same kind of fluidity between gender roles, and it all goes to hell. We write in shorthand. We make assumptions that men shun babies and hit things in the face and women protect things and avoid conflict. In fact, the people in our lives are so much more compelling an dynamic than this. Do a little digging, and you’ll find that history is full of people who don’t conform to this narrative either. It’s a narrative we seem to have been carrying a long time, but which was solidified here in the U.S. in the 50’s when we started rewriting and reinterpreting the history of our species so suddenly hunter-gatherer tribes actually had all the men going out to hunt and the women staying home at nursing babies and maybe gathering a few fruits (just like they were expected to do in the 50’s! How convenient that history was rewritten to reflect current social norms!). It completely ignored the fact that a lot of big game herd-hunts required most of the tribe to lure animals off cliffs, and that the majority of prehistoric diets came from fruits and vegetables. Men were not occasionally hunting game and then just lounging around. Nor were women just nursing babies and lounging around. Everybody was working incredibly hard to ensure the survival of the group, including childcare and food gathering. In groups that small, there’s no time for specialization. It’s work together, it’s interdependence, or death (if you’re interested in a total mindfuck of your conception of how gender may have actually determined certain roles in prehistoric times, read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Blood Rites).

Women are not “naturally” nice. Men are not “naturally” assholes. And the sooner we stop pretending that’s somehow hardwired in our DNA, the more interesting stories we’re going to be equipped to tell.

“You’re No Different Than That Thing in the Cellar”: Thoughts on “The Woman”

Note: this is a film that is about violence against women. Triggers ahoy.

Long-time readers know that I get really pissed off with creative work that employs random violence against women as some kind of lazy shorthand. Creators do this for all types of reasons. You don’t have to work too hard at characterizing your bad guy if you just have him randomly rape somebody. We all get our ire up and go, “Yep, that’s the bad guy!” without caring too much who he raped or why. In fact, we generally hear very little about the victim of the assault. The victims are just there as plot devices. Sadly, fictions tend to ignore the women who are assaulted. We’re just there to get beat up so that the bad guy can look bad and the good guy can look good by “avenging” us. What we think about it or do about isn’t considered terribly important. We’re just fodder for some guy’s story.

Do I ever think random, shorthand violence against female characters is justified?

No.

Do I think that there’s an instance where depicting brutality against women is appropriate to the story being told?

Yes. And here’s when that is:

When the story is actually about the institutionalized violence in our society directed at women. When it’s a story about exploring why and when that happens, and what it means, and how it twists both men and women, and who we are as a society because we tolerate (and even encourage) it. When a story actually sits down and actively tries to tell you something without being lazy about it.

I recently sat down to watch the film The Woman. I’d read a lot of mixed reviews about it. Just the premise terrified the crap out of me. It’s about a wild, feral woman who’s captured by an apparently unassuming family man and his creepily accommodating family, who attempt to “civilize” her.

I flailed and freaked out about this for awhile, but after reading a bunch of different responses, I realized I needed to see it for myself. Minor spoiler right here: if I hadn’t read in the reviews that the woman eventually gets free and has her revenge, I would not have been able to watch this film. It’s… really creepy.

But what’s it *about* you ask?

It’s about just what it says it is, and so, so much more.  Some spoilers ahead:

Unfortunately, you totally know this guy.

When you hear the whole “feral woman captured and family attempts to tame her” thing, you think torture porn, right? I know I did. I expected we’d get some young, blond passive thing absolutely terrified of her captivity that would kow-tow to her dominant male masters.

This is not that movie.

This is like somebody decided to “tame” some feral Conan. Among the first things she does it bite off the guy’s finger. And that’s just the beginning.

Our feral woman is not helpless. She’s not there to romanticize victimhood. She’s Conan caught in a bad situation with a bunch of crazy people.

And that’s what really stands out in this movie – not the craziness of the feral woman, but the absurdly fucked-up family who holds her. She seems almost normal and sympathetic by comparison as she eats fingers and rips out people’s hearts.

This is the story of a normal-seeming family of four – the hot shot lawyer dad, the plastered-on smile stay-at-home mom, the sports-playing son and emo daughter. They live in a beautiful house in the country. They are boringly affluent. They attend parties like normal people.

But they have a dark secret, of course.

They’ve got a wild woman in their cellar.

And a lot more shit that’s less literal.

Because this is, in fact, a house of beaten, repressed, and abused women. The way you begin to pick up on just how terrified they are provides much of the movie’s horror. There are two particular scenes early on – one where the father sits with his daughter on her bed, and puts his arm around her. He talks blithely of normal subjects, such as school ending and college beginning, but when he puts his arm around her, the daughter’s whole body goes rigid. She does not look at him. And in the hallway outside, you see the slow, terrified movement of her mother approaching the door – one step at a time, easing closer and closer, as if seeking to catch or dissuade her husband from whatever vile thing she’s afraid he’s going to do.

In the next scene, his wife asks, quietly, if it’s really the right thing to do, keeping a woman in the cellar. Up until this point, there has been no explicit violence against the women in this household. Just that cold, creepy, terrified feeling that they all walk around with. The man’s brushing his teeth. He comes into the room, looks at her, and slaps her gently. It’s not a violent slap. It’s as if he were swatting a fly, as if he knows that all he needs to do to remind her of her place is apply this simple, degrading move. He does not actually have to hurt her. Just remind her that he can. “I’m going to sleep now, babe,” he says,a and sighs contentedly and slips beneath the covers while his wife stands numb in the middle of the bedroom.

Not somebody you want to meet in a dark alley.

The family’s strange compliance with the husband’s increasingly bizarre requests regarding the wild woman start to make a lot more sense, despite the wild absurdity of the whole situation. In fact, it’s clear from the outset that the directors know this is a very absurd setup in the silly way they introduce the woman to the man in the first place, with some hyped up sexytime music. It looks ludicrous. Unbelievable.

But this isn’t a movie that’s literally about the woman in the cellar. It’s about all those things we don’t talk about. All those other women in the cellar, the ones we pass everyday at work, or at the grocery store. They’re the girls and women we see in school, or on the bus.

This was an epic horror movie for me because I understood some of what the women in this house were feeling.  Because, like many women, I know what it feels like to be stuck in a relationship that you feel just isn’t right, but you have no idea how the fuck to get out of it. You don’t have the tools or skills or perspective to escape, and everyone around you thinks your life is perfect, and normal, and you keep up the game because you don’t want to admit you made a mistake, or that you’re weak, or that you need help.

As the violence against the woman downstairs escalates, and the perfect façade this family shows to the world begins to crumble, I found myself nearly jumping up and down anticipating the escape of the woman in the cellar. You’re ready for her to get loose – and that angry, fucked-up, fuck-you part of you that wants to crush the fuck out of assholes’ skulls and tear out their hearts – wants to be, just for that one glorious moment, the woman who gets out the cellar and opens unholy fucking terror.

Toward the end of the film, things go off the rails a  bit, with some – if you can believe it – *really* over the top and what-the-fuck moments. But the gut punch also came there at the end, when the man grabs his daughter by throat and picks her up and spits at her that she’s just an animal, that she’s “no different than that thing in the cellar.”

And this gets to the root of the fear, right here. When you walk around in the world as a woman, you get this creepy feeling oftentimes that men really do just think of you as a thing, an object, as meat. You’re just there to fuck, or to hang out with so he can get status from other guys. You see these images of how women who are valued are supposed to look, and you see that you don’t look that way, and you wonder if that means you have no value. You get the feeling that you could be a Pulitzer Prize winning astronaut billionaire who cured cancer, and you’d still have a bunch of guys trolling your comments saying, fuck you, I’ll just rape you, and what will you be then, bitch? Because sexual violence is how you control women, how you put them in their place, how you maintain your own dominance.

For the guy in this film to actually say it out loud, to give voice to that terrible fear that so many of us have, was actually kind of cathartic for me.

“You’re no different than that thing in the cellar.”

Indeed.

Of course, immediately after this, the thing in the cellar rips out his heart and cuts his son in half.

So really, yes, that’s true. We can indeed be just like that thing in the cellar.

But I don’t think that’s the thing he was hoping was in the cellar. It was the thing he was hoping to create that he wanted to liken us all to.

There’s a lot of torture porn out there, from the Saw movies to Cabin in the Woods, but none of those movies actually explore what torture porn really is, or what it does to people. It doesn’t examine the ramifications, or what it may be saying about how we view people. For me, this film was a critique of those shitty, glossy sexualizations of violence. There is nothing sexy about violence here, though the guys in the film sure do think there is. The gross confusion between sex and violence here is shown for what it is – it’s a ludicrous tool for dominating another person (it does get lazy, I felt, at the end with what it does to a secondary character – I think it fell into the very genre it was critiquing with that particular twist).

But if you can stomach this movie – if you’re prepared for it – and if the bizarre shark-jumping weirdness of some of the twists at the end doesn’t ruin it completely for you – this is a terrifying, and terrifyingly weird exploration of everyday violence, sexism, abuse, and power.

Recommended, with resevations.

 

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.

 

Why Every Book is Not a Great F-Word Manifesto (But Should Be)

I had somebody complain about my post on The Cabin in the Woods, saying that, yanno, not EVERY book or film needs to be some great feminist manifesto. Not every book is ABOUT feminism, they said.

Which kinda made me wonder if they knew what “feminism” meant.

Cause this is all it is, folks: feminism is the revolutionary idea that women are people, and should be treated as such. Every book, regardless of what it thinks it’s about, says something about what the author and/or characters think about this idea. Sometimes, as in the case of, say, a John Ringo novel, it says it pretty explicitly.

Because let me tell you a secret: every great story is about people, about characters, and if you’re writing female characters who aren’t real people, you’re not writing about people. You’re writing about non-people, about agency-less objects who merely exist to further someone else’s story.

But sometimes the world is SEXIST, people might say. I should be able to show SEXISM, shouldn’t I?

Let me tell you a secret: people who are discriminated against? STILL ACT LIKE PEOPLE. They are still the heroes of their own stories. They make decisions which impact their lives, and the lives of people around them. They have thoughts! That aren’t even about the protagonist! In fact, sometimes (GASP!) these people ARE the protagonist! Even people living in sexist, racist, classist, fucked-up societies are human people with human stories. They are not spear carriers. They are not (usually) zombies. They do things for their own reasons, to satisfy their own ends (and even the zombies have to eat).

And as soon as everybody realizes that – that the people in a story, regardless of their race, class, gender, or whatever fucked up fantastical background you give them – are PEOPLE then stories will get more complex and interesting.  In fact, stories will get (GASP) MORE FEMINIST. That is, they will acknowledge that women are living, breathing, shitting, fucking human beings with quirks, interests, desires, anger, and ambitions that go beyond pole dancing and finding a proper husband.

Feminist fictions should be the norm, the default, the expectation – not the exception.

Because I’m sorry, folks, but I’ve gotta say it – despite what you may think about feminism because “it doesn’t affect me” everything is about feminism, from how and where you were born, and when, to how you were raised, where you went to school, how you learned language, who/how/why you have sex, attitudes and traditions around marriage, how you’re treated by health care professionals, who’s allowed to treat you, where, and even your workplace interactions, how much money you make, who you date, everything, all of it, from cradle to grave – that all involves women and attitudes, laws, and social conventions regarding their behavior. Yes, even if you’re a guy. Because over half the world is, you know, MADE OF WOMEN.

How women are treated and portrayed, and expectations of what women can and should do and how they do it impacts every single aspect of your life, regardless of gender.

So if you think that this ranting I do about the lazy writing in books and film is just for the womyns (only half the world!), or just for the lefty womyns with dried up wombs and advanced leftist degrees plunking out stodgy old papers full of rhetoric that nobody reads –

…surprise.

We’re all fucked by stories that dehumanize people. Those stories make us less human.

And I, for one, sure as hell don’t have a care for stories that do that.

 

Why your gun-toting chick isn’t feminist, redux: Thoughts on The Cabin in the Woods

Note: Spoilers ahoy

When I walked in to watch The Cabin in the Woods, I expected a total subversion of the genre. I was giddy at the idea of taking all the old horror movie tropes and fucking with them. I looked forward to the blonde who wasn’t stupid, the virgin who totally had a bunch of sex, the jock who spent the whole time doing his homework, the stoner who gave up drugs, and the “Other” who got romantically entangled with the blond. I expected everybody to live, to fight back, to overcome the sad sorry story of the maimed and bloodied teens in the woods. I expected moments of incredible heroism.

That was not the movie I saw.

No, the movie I saw wasn’t really a subversion at all, but, in fact, a reinforcement of every cliched horror movie you’ve ever seen. We were filling our primordial need for blood and gore and fear of sex as a sacrifice to the elder gods. Funny, right? Ha ha. But it’s a one-note funny. It’s a one-note idea. It’s lazy. And it’s not enough to make a whole movie out of.

You can’t build a subversive movie by simply reinforcing the status quo.

I’ve had a lot of issues with Whedon in this area since Dollhouse. It’s like because he had one show that was more feminist than other shows at the time back in the 90’s that somehow everything he does must be holy and Good for Women and even if he’s showing us women who are maimed, tortured, beaten, and humiliated for being women that that’s OK because a feminist is doing it.

Um.

No.

You know what the thing is with writing feminist stuff? You need to keep exploring what exactly it is, what it means, and push that envelope further every time. Instead, what I’ve seen is a regression in how women are portrayed and treated in Whedon’s work, and it’s creepy.

I knew I was in trouble during the very opening scene of the movie, when the two guys BEGIN THE MOVIE by insulting women generally. Ha ha, right? Women and their funny women’s issues! You funny womens! The movie’s first line! I want to believe this is a wink-wink nudge-nudge thing like, “Ha, those crazy old white guys and their old white guy misogyny!” But throwing old white guy misogyny on the screen in scene after scene without challenging it or interrogating it or presenting an alternative to it is just… misogyny. Plain old misogyny.

And I realized then that if I was already starting to try and “explain away” Whedon’s misogyny in the opening fucking scene I was doomed. Because it meant that I was going to be trying hard to erase a LOT more misogyny later on. La-la-la-la not listening!

But I couldn’t just put my fingers in my ears and pretend somebody else wrote it. I knew who wrote it, and it broke my heart.

And that was just the beginning.

Throughout the whole movie, the guys are the puppeteers. The guys still get most of the lines. They’re in control. Throwing in Sigourney Weaver at the end for the final fight doesn’t magically “fix” the fact that I just watched a very uncomfortable movie about how men maim and humiliate women in service to their dark, primordial desires/underlord. The scene with all the guys oogling over whether or not the blond’s shirt was going to come off was just… unnecessary. As was much of this movie.

The real tragedy here is that, of course, Whedon is a great dialog writer. He does great characters. It’s funny, and often fun. There are cool moments. But as I watched this movie and laughed along trying to enjoy myself despite the squicky bits, I became more and more uncomfortable with it.

I kept waiting for the big reveal. For the huge subversion. But it never came. In the end, during the one scene where our virgin sacrifice finally has the opportunity to make a choice – she doesn’t make it. A guy takes away her choice. And when she finally has the chance to save herself, a guy saves her. And the blond is still made stupid and dies first, and horribly and in a sexualized way. Just as in the horror movies it pokes fun at, the woman is the only one to die while involved in sex. Are we subverting tropes here, or reinforcing them? What does it matter the REASON that these things happened? If you’re infantilizing a woman “for laughs” or because you seriously believe she’s a baby, you’re still infantilizing her. End of story.

Just as with Dollhouse, I’m not going to slog through episode after episode of a woman being tortured, raped, and infantilized just so you can give her a gun later and say “Hey, see, she’s empowered now! It’s all OK! Guns = feminism, right?” No. It’s not OK. It’s lazy fucking storytelling. You can fucking do better. There are plenty of politicians who would be happy to give women guns so long as they remained barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. After all, they’d need to have guns to protect themselves from rapists when their men were at war, right?

Even the cast outside of the woods was mostly guys. We get one woman. One. Who is eaten like everyone else, of course, without doing anything terribly useful. In fact, much of the time, the guys are beating up on her like everything she’s ever done is wrong. She becomes their punching bag – and she takes it.

I have real problems with pretend-feminism movies. I get angry with lazy storytellers who hand women guns but then ensure that guys are making all of their decisions for them, or hand women guns but then dress them in leather pants and spend half the movie saying sexually explicit things about them, which, of course, the women just laugh or shrug off the way you have to do in real life because they are so polite and women must be pleasant and polite  (because in real life YOU DO NOT HAVE A GUN and superpowers that give you the ability to use it without consequence).

I’ve already heard that The Avengers suffers from some of these same issues, and I admit I expect to wince through those parts. What angers me is when people say, “Yes, but there are so many other GOOD things about X movie!” Yes, there are, but that sounds far too much like the old, “Lie back and think of England” bullshit way that we’ve been encouraged to endure every uncomfortable, humiliating thing heaped on us.

Fuck that.  I am tired of ignoring all the crap, lazy writing people do just because they can also write some funny jokes.

If you are going to subvert tropes, you had better be thinking damn hard about which ones you AREN’T subverting – and thus the ones you’ve also chosen to reinforce. Every choice we make as creators counts, and to see the lazy misogyny that crept into this steaming heap of a movie that was so effing close to being great was incredibly disappointing.