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feminism

It’s been a rough few weeks to be a woman, an Australian and a science fiction fan.

I don’t have anything to do with SFWA.  It’s the Science Fiction Writers of America, after all, and even if I was qualified to join (which would involve, for starters, finishing anything), I’m not entirely clear on what the body offers non-American authors.

But it is, effectively, the professional body for an industry I’d like to someday join, so I keep half an eye on its doings.

Suffice to say, the “professional body” has had some problems with, you know, professionalism.  Here’s a nice run-down; no need for me to sum it all up again.

It troubles me that here we have an organisation that is, in practice if not intent, only welcoming to 50% of the population.  (Technically 49%, I believe, but never trust a stat you got from Tumblr.)

The men of Mad Men, season 1.

Some people think that Mad Men is about how we need to get back to a time when workplaces looked like this. Those people are wrong.

I admire John Scalzi a lot, and I respect his efforts to move what looks (from the outside) like a toxic organisation into the twenty-first century.  But the kickback is ugly.  They say, “Don’t read the comments”, but sometimes it helps to know your enemy.  Like here.

Growing up, I didn’t believe in sexism.  When I was 12, my parents went through one of their particularly right-wing periods, and they told me one day that if my brother and I ever went for the same job, I would get it because I’m a girl.

(In reality, my brother and I did once go for the same job, albeit several years apart, and he got it and I didn’t.  But he’s also much smarter than me, and a harder worker.  Maybe because he was told he’d be competing against privileged feminazis, I don’t know.)

Parental eccentricities aside, though, I was lucky.  I came of age in the ’90s.  The most outrageous example of sexism I encountered was in 1999, when a nice lady from Sarina Russo visited my school and told us that girls shouldn’t wear trousers to job interviews, or seem too intelligent, because you didn’t want the interviewer to think you were arrogant.

(I have gotten plenty of jobs after interviewing in trousers.  Not that I wear them much any more, because apparently it’s physically impossible to make pants for my body shape, but if I could find work pants that fit, I would wear them every day.)

Somewhere along the lines, that changed.

I believe it’s fashionable to blame Britney Spears and Lady Gaga for the change, because by all means, let’s blame women for sexism.  A friend of mine attributes the shift to a decade of conservatism under Bush and Howard, the rise of the religious right and the messed up gender dynamics of abstinence-only sex education.

(I think celibacy is a dandy thing if you can do it, but it really helps if you know what you’re abstaining from, and where your boundaries lie.  Apparently these are bad things that will Destroy Children’s Innocence, just like teaching kids the proper names for their genitals.)

I’m not really interested in the whys and wherefores.  (That’s totally a tautology, by the way!)  I’d like for the tide to turn, and then the historians can get on with looking at causes, and I will read the books they publish and feel enlightened.

(Unless they blame Britney Spears and Lady Gaga.)

The business with the SFWA would just be so much background noise if not for what has been going on in Australia this week:

  • The Prime Minister – a lady politician, in the parlance of Resnick and Malzberg – makes reference to the misogyny frequently employed in criticisms of her work.  She is accused of playing the gender card.
  • Approximately 24 hours later, a menu from a Liberal Party fundraising dinner (remember, the Liberals are the conservatives here, because everything is upside down in Australia) is leaked to the press.  It includes “Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail – small breasts, huge thighs and a big red box”.  Please note that in the language of high school students and dickheads, “box” is slang for “vagina”.  The media tells us this is all a lot of fuss over nothing, can’t you take a joke, etc.
  • A couple of days later, a radio presenter asks the PM if her partner is gay.  ‘Cos he’s a hairdresser, right, and ‘cos what type of bloke would be involved with a woman more powerful than he is?  The journo is fired, promises legal action.  This insult also involves a man, so it’s taken a bit more seriously.
  • About a day later, although by this point all the events were kind of merging into one, Lieutenant-General David Morrison, Chief of Army, addresses a problem of institutional misogyny in the army, and makes it clear that this is unacceptable.  He‘s hailed as a feminist hero, and there are calls for him to “run for Prime Minister”, even though that’s not actually how our system works.

And I’m just tired.  Tired because this is how our country treats a woman in power, and how many young women like me are watching this and going, “Wow, actually, you know, I don’t think I will go into politics”?  Once or twice is sexism, but this barrage is just misogyny.  Hatred and fear of women.

And what has Gillard done to deserve it?  Her government’s policies regarding asylum seekers are shameful and inhumane, but the other side’s are worse.  She doesn’t support gay marriage, but neither does the Liberal Party.  Her policies have disadvantaged single mothers in receipt of payments, but so do Tony Abbott’s.

(That both sides are terrible doesn’t make it okay.  I really despise what the Labor Party has become, and I hate that they prioritise money and xenophobia over human rights.  But it’s not as if the Liberal Party and the Murdoch press are approaching this from a position of moral outrage, you know?)

She’s a woman, and she’s in politics, and she is, despite the media’s narrative of failure, quite good at advancing policies, often through compromise and sheer bloody mindedness.  And for some reason, the Australian media just can’t wait to be rid of her.

(Remember how, before the US election, it was a dead certainty that Romney would win and Obama would be history?  That’s the same narrative playing out here, hopefully with the same result.  I for one am growing tired of the assumption that the next election is decided.  I mean, come on, guys, we actually get a say in this!)

I am so tired of feeling like I have to defend my right to be here.

It doesn’t help that I spent much of this last week transcribing the trial of an accused rapist.  There are supposed to be rules about how the defence treats the complainant, but in practice, it’s still okay to make insinuations about her style of dress, her make-up, whether she was wearing a brightly coloured bra, whether her creative pursuits indicate she doesn’t understand the difference between fantasy and reality.

I’ve been intermittently watching a J-drama called Strawberry Night, about a rape survivor who becomes a police officer.

It’s basically a series about rape culture and institutionalised sexism in Japan. Cheery stuff!

In the TV movie that precedes the actual series, there’s a flashback to the trial of her attacker.  As a teenage witness, she’s standing behind screens so the jury can’t see her.  The defence counsel trots out all the usual, horrible cliches:  you liked it, you led him on, you made it up.

And Reiko loses her temper and steps out from behind the screens, haranguing the lawyer herself: How dare you say that about me, how dare you dishonour the work of the police officers who pursued this case and the officer who died arresting this man?

It’s cathartic, but when I first watched it, I felt like it was too on the nose, too much a wish-fulfilment fantasy.

Then I started transcribing criminal trials, and now I go back and watch that scene again (even though I’m only a few episodes into the series proper) because it’s so satisfying.  It could never happen in real life, but it really is lovely to see it happen on a screen.

I am very, very tired.  And all I’ve done is watch!  But being a witness, as my therapist said last year, is traumatic in its own way.

Yesterday I burrowed in and worked on a project I have going, and then played Mass Effect and read a book for a while.  It was very soothing, except when I remembered that women aren’t welcome in gaming either, and … actually, no, I have no criticism about the book I’m reading at the moment.  Whispers Under Ground by Ben Aaronovitch, number 3 in the Rivers of London series.  It’s the type of thing my parents called literary fast food, but it’s not so much McDonalds as a burger from that really excellent place that uses the best quality meat, and fresh bread and salads, and makes their own sauces.

It has been a long week.  And coming off the back of a really satisfying con where women’s voices were heard and interesting and funny things were said, it feels a bit like a punch in the face.  (I gave some serious thought to moving to Canada to escape Australia’s politics, but I don’t like the cold, I don’t understand ice hockey, and I can’t eat poutine.)  I realise I’m making a lot of things all about me, but my therapist also said that’s empathy, and I should stop criticising myself for having feelings.

ANYWAY, it’s a nice day, and I’m going to go and have brunch with my excellent friends, and then maybe look at the Mass Effect tag on Tumblr and satisfy myself that my FemShep is better than everyone else’s.  (I presume that is a natural part of the Mass Effect experience?  Seriously, why does the male version of Shephard even exist?  He’s so … well, not my type, suffice to say.)

You’ve heard about Fake Geek Girls, right?  Terrible, conniving women who spend time and money on costumes and merch, studying a fandom, not to mention paying for hotels and convention memberships, all so they can PRETEND TO BE FANS, to LURE INNOCENT YOUNG GEEK MEN into their TRAP.  Said trap being, as far as I can tell, that they don’t want to have sex with the men who desire yet hate them.

Yeah, I don’t get it either.  But the idea is out there — not just being perpetuated by actualfax journalists and industry professionals, but lurking on Tumblr, Reddit and 4Chan.  There are no female geeks.  They’re just pretending.  Women are cheerleaders, which is the female equivalent of the jock, and the jock is evil.  Also, high school: never actually ended.

(I’m not the only one who has that nightmare, right?  I’ve had so many dreams where I somehow forgot to complete my science class that I have trouble remembering that not only did I finish science, but I came fourth in my grade.  Which isn’t all that impressive, because it was multistrand science, and also I missed, like, a term due to illness that I never made up, so actually, it wasn’t so much that I was good at it, as I was just in a really average grade.)

Now, I’m a Real Geek Girl.  I even have the business cards to prove it!

(…Well, minicards.  I felt like a wanker as I ordered them, but every time I go to a con, I find myself wishing I had something to hand out with my Twitter and blog addresses on it.  And you can also put text on the back.  So I have Real Geek Girl cards.  Or I will when they arrive.)

I’ve been a Trekkie since I was ten.  I have childhood memories of Doctor Who.  I started my first fan fiction when I was 12.  I’m helping to run a science fiction convention, for heaven’s sake!

Doth the lady protest too much?

Well, yeah.

I love Voyager, the wrong version of Star Trek.  (It’s full of women, you know.)  As a child, it was Sylvester McCoy’s era of Doctor Who that I watched (it was full of women, you know), and as an adult, it was New Who (it marginalises men!) that made me fall in love with the series and seek out Classic Who again.  Just like my subconscious thinks I’m a fake high school graduate, my jerkbrain thinks I’m an imposter.

Fandom loves a hierarchy, especially if it can put women close to the bottom.  (Along with other marginalised groups, of course, and I don’t mean to dismiss or erase the experiences of genderqueer fans and fans of colour.  But at the same time, I can’t talk about their experiences either.)

She’s not really a fan.  She’s fannish, but she shouldn’t be.  She’s a fan, but look what she’s into.  

A few years ago, when I worked at Borders, a customer annoyed me so much that I turned our exchange into a crude comic.

failcustomer

(Actual fact: there is a rare flower that blooms whenever the “City of Death” score is played.)

(Incidentally, I actually do have a chin.)

This isn’t just the fannish patriarchy.  The female-dominated end of fandom has its own internal hierarchy, with fic writers, vidders and cosplayers at the top, artists in the middle (“Anyone can draw!”) and lurkers — consumers, our own audience — at the bottom.

(For some ranting on the subject, come to the Lurker Panel at Continuum this year!  And if you’re wondering if it was a challenge to round up a panel’s worth of lurkers and persuade them to speak in public, you’d be quite correct.)

And crossing gender barriers is the idea that you’re not a “real” fan if you only like one era, or one spin-off, or you got into it because you like an actor.  There’s a reason Laura Mead’s essay in Chicks Unravel Time, “David Tennant’s Bum”, got so much attention from reviewers — she was proudly proclaiming that she was the Wrong Type Of Fan.

(The fact that her essay was also an exploration of the ways the Tenth Doctor represented a different kind of masculinity in his heroism seemed to go unnoticed — it’s not a new thing to say about the Doctor, but it has traditionally come bundled with baggage about asexuality, ie, he’s not a traditionally masculine hero and he wouldn’t touch anything so disgusting as a woman.)

I have this theory that, aside from the human love of constructing hierarchies, there’s a strong element of insecurity at work.

I mean, I don’t give credence to the stereotype of the nerd with no social skills, who lives with his parents in a room full of action figures, but I think a lot of us had a hard time in high school.  Bullies will latch on to anything that makes a person stand out, and only the very self-confident can keep that from touching them.

(And that self-confidence is what makes those kids popular.  Not that I could see it when I was a bad tempered 15 year old who hated everything and everyone but especially the popular kids.  But looking back, they were just as weird and awkward as everyone else, they just pretended they didn’t care.  I should have spent less time hating them and more time trying to cultivate that independence.)

When I was 11 and 12, some girls in my class used to slam me against a brick wall and shout, “BEAM ME UP SCOTTY!”

Those girls?  My best friends.  You know, when they weren’t bullying me, or belittling me for liking things they didn’t enjoy, or using me as the butt of their jokes…

I did eventually figure out that actually they weren’t my friends at all, but even now, I sometimes find that I tolerate poor treatment from people just because they say they’re my friend, and I get very, very defensive if people tease me about the stuff I’m into.

And it’s that defensiveness that creates these toxic hierarchies, these cultures of exclusion.  If what I like becomes popular, there won’t be room for me.  If there are new people coming into my fandom, I need to establish myself at the top of the peak, because what if they turn out to be really popular?

And then, sometimes, that gets tied up with the misogyny that permeates our society.  It’s a mixture of fear, male entitlement, and the psychological scars of adolescence.

Or maybe I’m just extrapolating from my own experience to the entire human race, which is probably a bad idea, but I feel like there might be a grain of truthiness somewhere.

Deb Stanish and L M Myles, editors of Chicks Unravel Time — hey, I’m in that, remember? — were interviewed over the weekend by Radio Free Skaro, which instantly became the very first podcast I listened to.

At one point, discussion arises as to whether CUT is specifically a feminist book, and the editors disagreed.  Deb said that just because a book is written by women, it isn’t automatically feminist.  LMM pointed out that simply “talking about Doctor Who” has traditionally been a masculine activity — there have always been women in the fandom, but books of criticism about the series have very rarely featured women’s voices.

In a desperate attempt to suck up to both editors at once, I’ve been flipping back and forth all day.

See, I agree with Deb that merely being written by a woman doesn’t make a work feminist … but then I find myself thinking, no, but the act of writing itself might be.

And I agree with LMM that discourse about Doctor Who has been traditionally male-dominated (to say nothing of the show itself, which has had shockingly few female writers, directors and producers).    On the other hand, the Aussiecon panels in 2004 amply demonstrated that just because a woman is talking about Doctor Who, she isn’t necessarily saying feminist things.

(This is to say nothing of the many other misogynistic ideas that I’ve seen women in fandom promote — that Amy’s worth is defined by the length of her skirts; that marriage makes River and Amy worthless; that it was a feminist act for Rose to discard every aspect of her life that didn’t revolve around the Doctor; and so on, and on, and on.)

Well, I thought, as I pottered around making tea, I know my essay didn’t have an explicitly feminist agenda.

Sure, said the other part of my brain, it’s just about how season 17 was badly received by male fans because it was driven to a large extent by female characters.  And then you start writing about the Countess Scarlioni’s personality instead of her looks, which has never been done before.  And your general “Romana is the Doctor” agenda.

Goodo, then!  Pats on the back for me!

And, of course, feminism is a broad church.  I have a friend who thinks all sex work is exploitation, and another who has featured in feminist porn.  I know pro-life feminists and feminists who think that’s a contradiction in terms.  Fandom is full of women who seem to have very serious feminist objections to the existence of mothers, although personally I suspect that’s more about their psychology than feminism.

I don’t think Catherine Deveny’s writing is especially feminist, except occasionally by accident, but I have friends who worship her.  Someone out there thinks Germaine Greer and Helen Razer are relevant.  Personally I draw the line at feminists who limit the concept to cis, white, able-bodied women, and everything else, maybe I’ll disagree, but it’s not a life or death issue.

Incidentally, “feminism” doesn’t look like a word anymore.

SO, IN CONCLUSION, I’m fairly optimistic that CUT will be regarded by some people as a great feminist work, and by others as an abomination unto Nuggan.  (The same day it was announced, a post went up on Tumblr decrying the use of “chicks” in the title, so odds are good.)  And I have to say, I’m eager to see how the debate plays out.