Tag Archives: feminism

Don’t Tread On Us: Thoughts on WDSF and Tangent

I want to talk about Lightspeed’s Women Destroy Science Fiction! and Tangent Online’s review yesterday–in particular, Dave Truesdale’s “Closing Thoughts” and why it bothered me. But first, let’s talk about the issue itself.

In short: it’s amazing. I got to read it cover-to-cover ahead of time as part of the proofreading team (which I affectionately refer to as “Women Destroy Typos!”), and I think it’s one of the most outstanding anthologies I’ve read in years. It’s an important work made up of important works, a monumental achievement–not the least because Lightspeed went the extra mile and turned the whole project over to 109 very capable women. Women wrote, edited, illustrated, and created the issue at every level.

My personal favorite original story from WDSF is Amal El-Mohtar’s “The Lonely Sea in the Sky,” the tale of the discovery of an ocean of liquid diamonds on Neptune and how scientists harness its unique properties to create a teleportation device. The story traces what follows when people discover the sea is sentient and that the invention causes it to suffer. The story is exquisite in construction and execution, and thematically it sums up what’s at stake for women who write science fiction and some of the historical problems in the genre.

Take, for example, the words of the man who first demonstrates the teleportation device:

“One small step for man,” said Moor, and the crowd erupted in cheers.

Obviously it’s a reference to the moon landing, but in the story, El-Mohtar develops the earth as a symbol of the female body, alive and screaming as it is trod upon:

Hala, imagine if when we were children, we had seen a girl splayed out on the floor, spread-eagled, her every bone broken beneath the feet of boys jumping up and down on her as if she were solid ground. Imagine we could hear her screaming, begging them to stop, to let her go, but the boys could not, because she was nothing, she was the earth, she could not feel. But we could see her. We could hear her.

Taken together, these two quotes evoke images of fiction written during the Golden Age of SF, where men traipsed about accomplishing Big Things in a universe depopulated of women, making one giant leap for man upon the face of a sentient moon and ignoring her screams as something that could not possibly exist. The problem of these authors writing women out of stories reflects to some degree how female authors and readers have also been marginalized, treated as if they are part of the landscape and can be safely ignored underfoot as the men go on with their Important Work.

WDSF, as a project, aims to reverse that. Not only are women important, but they are vital. They are necessary as authors, editors, illustrators, and more. Look at what we are capable of, if given the chance!, we say on every page. The quality speaks for itself. SF as a genre is poorer when we are underrepresented or excluded.

Which brings me around to Dave Truesdale’s editorial “Closing Thoughts”. Instead of reviewing the actual WDSF issue as a whole and discussing the merits of how its constituent pieces come together, he spends several thousand words explaining why its very existence was unnecessary and wrong-headed to begin with. Says Truesdale:

Not once have I personally seen a smidgeon of racism or sexism at a convention, whether it be a local or regional con, a worldcon, a World Fantasy convention, a Campbell/Sturgeon awards banquet, or a Nebula Awards weekend. Maybe I’ve just been lucky, but one might think that if racism or sexism is as deeply rooted in SF as some would like you to think, that after 40 years I would have seen or heard something personally.

Wiser minds than mine have done a great job taking apart why Truesdale’s comments are factually wrong and problematic, so I won’t get into the unfortunately abundant evidence contradicting his statements. I recommend you read what Natalie Luhrs, Amal El-Mohtar, Rachael Acks, and E. Catherine Tobler have to say in this area.

But I do want to point out what’s at stake here, and how Truesdale misses the point of the whole WDSF conversation. Instead of engaging with the work presented, he gaslights. He claims to understand our experiences better than we do. “There is no woman beneath my feet,” says Truesdale as he jumps and jumps on her broken body. She screams from the pages of WDSF, and he calls it “shrill,” and claims she’s exaggerating, and besides anything that happened to her was probably an accident or just the result of a random individual. He has not seen it, and therefore it doesn’t exist.

Does he really, genuinely not see her there, despite all 109 of us pointing our fingers and telling him so? Or does he hear her, and choose to ignore her anyway?

Amal El-Mohtar’s story deserves the last word on the subject of Truesdale:

“Imagine, Hala , that in the eye of one of these boys you see satisfaction. You see knowledge. You see that he knows he is making someone scream but it doesn’t bother him, it doesn’t matter, because he can get away with it. What would you do?”

What should we do?

I was quite upset after reading the review last night. I don’t think it’s right that this editor’s comments should steal the show and dominate this conversation, and just as we’re all celebrating its release. So I say let’s not let him do it. Read WDSF. Read it cover to cover. Talk about it. Read and engage in the conversation about Tangent, too, but don’t miss out on the really good stuff in the doing. No review is as important as the stories and essays in WDSF itself.

Don’t tread on us.

Is Fear Pathological?

File:Shirley Strickland.jpg
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, Melburnian, October 2006.

2013 was a lousy year for running in my life. I kicked off the year with a persistent tendon injury in my foot which forced me off the road for a few months. Then, just as I started to ramp up my training again, things came to a head with my neighborhood stalker and completely ruined my running routine.

I still ran a lot despite the stalker, but it wasn’t quite the same as before. One major change was losing my favorite route, because it took me past his house.

Today I ran my old route alone for the first time since that day almost 9 months ago. It starts at my doorstep, takes me to a park that’s a couple miles away, and then back to my home. I always know I’m halfway done when I see the pink wooden turrets of the playground’s castle in the distance.

Today I ran that route, only in reverse. I drove to the park and ran the opposite way starting from the castle, and when I neared my own neighborhood, I turned away and ran back.

I’ve missed my old route. It has good landmarks to mark the distances, it’s scenic, and most importantly, it has gently rolling hills. I love running hills like these. There’s a rhythm to them that makes running uniquely pleasurable and somehow adventurous. You reach the base of the hill and attack it, quickening your stride, swinging your arms in short, tight arcs, breath accelerating, heart racing, calves aching until you’re at the top. Then instantly the rhythm reverses. You ease off and let gravity do the work as you float downhill, and I swear it feels like flying: easier and more natural than walking. Sometimes you feel like you could run forever.

Flats are the worst, though. I hate running long stretches of flat ground. It’s one of the reasons that I hate and despise treadmills and tracks–while they’re better than nothing, they take much of the joy out of running, the rhythm and flow, the alternating of fight and victory that convinces you to go just a little further than you thought you could.

Life’s like that, I think. We suffer on the climbs, and we exhilarate in the floating, flying descents, but somehow the flats are the worst. The stagnation, the parts of your life when you feel like you’re running parallel with your dearest goals which never seem to come any closer.

File:Tracks.jpg

Did I mention 2013 was a terrible year for running in my life? I spent most of it running flats. After I ceded my neighborhood route to my stalker, most of my runs took place at the track in a nearby park. It had a lot to offer safety-wise: set back off the main road, there was no way the creep could follow me in his car or even know I was running there. And I got to know the little community of people who frequent the track everyday, elderly retired folks and athletes and children, mostly. But running a flat 1k loop is torturous. It’s got nothing on the hills.

I realized something else today: how much my experience with the stalker has shaped my life. These days when I run, I watch passing cars reflexively, and if I see one that looks remotely like that gray Nissan Sentra that I’m oh-so-familiar with, the panic starts in the back of my brain. Suddenly I’m arguing with myself. “You’re okay,” I say, “you’ve got your cell–here, in your pocket–and besides, look, it’s a Honda, see?” Meanwhile the other voice jibbers about pain and death and panic and running away to hide, NOW, before it’s too late.

I mean, I get it. My brain’s trying to be helpful. All those months ago, in an instant my fear ran right up the scale until it hit with certainty: “I am about to die.” And when I didn’t, my brain made a few extra connections, turned up the volume on certain warnings, hoping to prevent a reoccurrence.

It used to be worse. There was a time shortly after that day when I was afraid to check my mail. That got better with time. And I was terrified of my old running route. Even today, I never fully forgot the panic.

I used to think this sort of fear was pathological, but I’ve discovered something: almost every woman has a story like this.

It happens at parties, when in a corner, we start sharing these tales. And instead of shock, the other women nod, eyes wide, and they understand. And I hear over and over again how many of us are afraid. Perhaps most of us, to some degree. We swap “safety” tips and compare notes and exchange sympathetic hugs before we go back into the world to run uphill against the fear.

In fact, I think that we consider it pathological for a woman not to be afraid.

This occurred to me while reading James Tiptree Jr.’s short story, “Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled Of Light!” The story revolves around a woman undergoing a psychotic break. She believes she lives in a future where for unexplained reasons, men no longer exist, and everyone in the world is friendly. This means she’s wandering around a big city alone at night, in high spirits, rejoicing in the health of her body and the beauty of the world. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to her, a group of men stalks her. At the end, they violently attack her.

The story is told in retrospect through interviews of people who saw her the night of the attack. These people fault her for her optimism, happiness, and lack of fear, and they universally perceive her demeanor as pathological. As a result they blame her for what is done to her, even though they all have the opportunity to intervene along the way.

This resonated with me: that we live in a world where women are supposed to be afraid, and for some reason we consider the fear a healthy thing, to the point where failure to be afraid all the time is held against us. And so we blame ourselves and obsess over how we “provoked” our harassers and attackers into targeting us, accepting without question that it is wrong to assume we can live without fear.

Every woman has a story like this, after all.

But I don’t want to run on the flats for the rest of my life. I love people. I love talking with strangers, finding shared interests and common ground, the blossoming of new friendships and deepening the roots of old ones. My life would be much less rich if I lived in fear all the time.

File:Castelo-dos-Mouros 1.jpg

I don’t want to be afraid of people. I don’t want to be afraid of you.

But how do I balance that against the fear? How do I fight back against the constant, exhausting barrage of threats masked as concern, the idea that it’s my job to hide myself, lest bad people choose to inflict harm upon me?

I don’t really know, honestly. But I’m going to keep running the hills. I hope you’ll run with me.

On the horizon, I see a castle.

Privilege at the Classics Cafe

Imagine that you are a chef. You and a group of chef friends are going to dinner at a place called the Classics Cafe. This cafe is famous for its rotating schedule of internationally-renowned chefs who take turns each night preparing a menu for the diners.

Tonight, Chef Lovecraft is on the menu. You all order, receive your dishes, and begin to eat. You’re enjoying yourselves very much until your friend Bill, who happens to be a black man, exclaims, “Hey, there’s crap in my food!” He passes around his plate, and sure enough, you all see a small amount of feces buried underneath the smoked fish. Everyone checks their own plates, and it’s the strangest thing: only the people of color have been served crap along with their fish. So you call the waiter over, and he explains that Chef Lovecraft’s philosophy is to serve a little crap to his diners of color, and nothing can be done about it.

But you’re all hungry, and Lovecraft after all is a very famous chef, so you all discuss what to do. “The taste isn’t that bad,” says Bill, gamely putting on a smile as he takes another bite. “I think I can eat around it and enjoy the taste anyway.”

“I can’t,” says your friend Lisa, who is also black. “The taste and smell just overwhelm everything. It’s so distracting I can’t even concentrate on whatever it is people rave about when they eat Lovecraft. I’m going to have to pass.” She politely shoves the plate away and nibbles on bread the rest of the meal. The other people of color take various positions along this spectrum. Some decide to keep eating, and some decide to refrain.

Those of you whose dishes are perfectly edible then discuss how to proceed. Everyone can see the crap on your friends’ plates, but you can’t taste it the way they can. You care about these people, so you’re disgusted on their behalf, but you’re not really sure just exactly how bad it tastes for them, especially considering how wildly opinions vary within the group of people served the tainted plates.

Some of you decide to enjoy Lovecraft’s expertly prepared dish anyway after acknowledging the awfulness some of your friends experienced. You’re chefs, after all, and you’re trying to build your palates so you can be better chefs.

Others are a little more bothered, and keep pulling the conversation from the smoky flavor back to the crap, which irritates those who just want to talk about the fish. Your Uncle Stanley (who is boorish and inconsiderate, but hey, he’s family) is one of the latter. He exclaims, “That’s not crap–it’s chocolate! And if it weren’t for all the political correctness, we’d all be able to enjoy our meals, but some people just want to be victims and ruin it for the rest of us!”

A few are so upset by the crap in their own or friends’ food that they gather their things and leave, saying they’ll rejoin you for dinner next week. Your 17-year-old niece Julie takes the opportunity to leave with them, saying, “I don’t want to eat this boring old racist Lovecraft crap when I can just grab a cheeseburger at McKoontz’s across the street!”

Each week you return to the same restaurant with the same people to eat a meal prepared by a different famous chef. Sometimes everyone gets to enjoy the meal, but other times the featured chef singles out certain people at the table for a serving of crap. Sometimes it’s the people of color. Sometimes it’s your female friends, or those belonging to a certain religion or belief system. Some friends end up eating crap almost every time this happens, while others almost never get served crap.

The size of the portion, and how well-hidden it is, varies as well. On some weeks, even Uncle Stanley admits that the crap is there. Other times, you have only your friends’ word to go on that the food tastes like crap, because it’s been incorporated into a glaze and therefore isn’t visible to you.

One night, Chef Atwood is on the menu. She serves your table a delicious chocolate mousse that’s shaped like a large pile of crap, provoking a chorus of delighted laughter from everyone who’s been served crap up until then. Uncle Stanley, however, is outraged. “This is unacceptable! Back in my day, no self-respecting chef would serve the diners crap and call it food!”

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How do we, in good conscience, enjoy classic books and movies that contain oppressive and discriminatory elements in them? And how do we know where to draw the line between “acceptable” and “unacceptable” when those elements are directed at other people, but not at ourselves personally?

I’ve long struggled for words to explain the difference between seeing oppression and experiencing it. For example, I’m white. When I read classics that contain racist elements (such as those by the famously racist H. P. Lovecraft), the racism is never directed at me personally. I might find the racism tasteless, but I don’t experience the hurtfulness of it personally because the crap was not served to me.

I’m really troubled by the way this distinction can make me minimize other peoples’ pain. Because I only see the crap but don’t personally taste it, I’m inclined to downplay just how bad it tastes to those who have to eat it. It’s easy to shrug, write off the racism as a product of its time, and move on.

That’s a form of privilege. Specifically, the privilege to walk away. You see, I almost never encounter the subject of racism in my day-to-day life. I only have to think about it when someone else brings it up, or when I encounter it in media. Therefore, it doesn’t carry the same sort of sting for me as it does for someone whose daily life constantly makes their race an issue.

I have no idea what that must feel like. I can see the crap, but I can’t taste it. I can walk away from it.

But it’s different when the crap is served to me. When I run across sexism in a book or movie, I have a deep, visceral reaction to it. It completely derails my enjoyment of what I’m reading, and sometimes I find it very difficult to get past the flavor of the sexism to enjoy what good might be there. Sometimes I’ll compare notes with my male friends, and it always surprises me that even when they notice the sexism, they just don’t seem to understand how hurtful it is. They note it, then move past it.

They can’t taste the crap because it was only served to me.

So what can we do to be responsible readers, writers, and friends, given this problem?

As writers, we can commit to ending oppression by ensuring that we don’t single out readers for a special serving of crap. Given that we’re all products of our upbringing and our surrounding culture, this is an ongoing process and part of growing as a human being.

As readers and friends, we need to listen to each other and acknowledge when a friend gets served crap. There is no need to make excuses for the chef–he or she is the one who served it, not us or our friends.

We need to give people permission to make their own decisions on how to proceed with the meal. If someone is served crap, the diner is not obligated to eat around it, although some may graciously choose to do so. Sometimes, we will decide to enjoy the meal after helping the friend pick out the tainted parts. Other times, when the crap is especially bad, we may decide the best thing to do is to leave together. And other times, it means letting some eat and others pass without judgment on either side.

How do you handle dining at the Classics Cafe? How do you approach literature with problematic elements, and the people those elements are directed at hurting?

Motley Microfiction: Girls With Guns

The night’s broken by frenzied clack-clack-clacking. French Couture Barbie leads the charge, flanked by her lieutenants, Lifeguard Barbie and Olympic Skater Barbie.

And they’re all clutching little pink assault rifles in perfectly manicured hands.

They cover ground on painfully long legs, running on heels and tippy-toes. Long hair snaps like flags. Those eyes never blink, those smiles harden at the corners.

Schoolteacher Barbie floors the Dream Car. Riding shotgun, Astronaut Barbie operates the turret. Wheelchair Barbie lobs grenade after grenade from the periphery.

Stewardess Barbie, old and worn, hops along one-legged with a flamethrower and dares anyone to disrespect her.

————————————————————————————————————

Last week, the Barbies descended on the Jones household.

It started when a friend of mine asked to leave something at our house for a mutual friend to pick up later. Much to my amusement, she carried in a couple large boxes full of Barbie dolls, still in their packaging.

So tell me, what would YOU do in a situation like this?

Jason’s approach was to build a tower of sparkly princess goodness out of them, which you can see on his blog here.

Me? I chose to write a commemorative drabble, of course!

While I find Barbies inherently funny as an adult (French Couture Barbie – LOL!), I wanted to capture a sense of dignity for the poor things in today’s story. They’re condemned to a frozen existence, always poised and smiling no matter what may really be going on beneath the surface.

I think they’re ripe for a revolution.

GI Joe better watch his back.

Creeper Guy Revisited: You’re Always the Hero of Your Own Story

English: A stereotypical caricature of a villa...
You always know the villain by the awesome mustache. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today I want to share some thoughts looking back on my experience with my neighborhood stalker (a.k.a. Creeper Guy) two months ago. As always, if you’d prefer to stick with the flash fiction, no hard feelings here. Check back tomorrow or browse the archives.

Let’s start with a familiar story. It’s about a hero, a villain, and a damsel. The villain’s of the mustache-twirling variety. Because he has it out for the hero, he’s captured the damsel and tied her to the train tracks. The hero somehow learns of this plan, hops on his horse, and rides to rescue his lady.

In the distance he hears the sounds of the train whistle growing louder and louder. Does he get there in time? Of course! He’s the hero. He jumps off his horse, duels the villain, and unties the damsel just moments before the train whooshes past.

It’s a classic story, and a good one. And the perspective matters. As readers, we see through the eyes of the hero because that’s the perspective I told the story from.

But we reflexively do this all the time. You are always the hero of your own story. When we hear about a dangerous situation, we imagine that in similar circumstances, we’d outsmart the bad guy and save the day.

Take my Creeper Guy story. While I received an enormous outpouring of love and support, I also received well-intentioned comments like this:

“Show me where he lives, and I’ll beat him up if he bothers you.”

“If someone ever came after my family like that, I wouldn’t think twice about shooting him.”

“Shame on you for not calling the police sooner. You should have called a long time ago.”

“I’ve never run into crazy guys because I always run with my dog/with a friend/at the park/etc.”

In all of these statements, the person casts themselves in the role of the hero within my story. They presume that, given the same circumstances, they would have made a different decision that would result in a more victorious outcome. My actions (specifically, the months and months of inaction that preceded my eventual phone call to the police) don’t make sense. That’s not what the hero does. The hero is bold, decisive, and in control of the situation. The hero beats up the villain and saves the girl.

English: Poster for The Perils of Pauline (1914)
The damsel’s in a default state of fear. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But let’s revisit the story again.

She’s minding her own business, overpowered by a stranger whose intentions are inscrutable. She’s restrained. She’s lying on the train tracks while her kidnapper looks on and laughs. She hears the whistle of the train approaching. All she can think about is that she’s about to die. She would do anything to get away, to hide, to rewind time to that point in her life just hours ago (a lifetime ago) when mustache-twirling strangers only existed in the movies.

You see where I’m going with this.

Being a damsel in distress is inherently disempowering. It’s a role defined by helplessness and limited options. In my experiences with Creeper Guy, it really bothered me that this jerk could singlehandedly terrorize me into not running for weeks at a time. He had all the power. It’s a sick feeling. Whenever I had a run-in with him, I’d be afraid to check my own mail for days afterward, lest he be out there in his car, waiting. It’s the “flight” portion of the “fight-or-flight” response.

Remember: I’m exactly like you. I’ve had fantasies all my life that if anyone messed with me, I’d put them in their place. But when the reality of several tons of metal comes barreling after you, you run. You hide. You don’t want to think about it. You want to go back to that time in your life when your neighbors were harmless, when stalkers only showed up in the movies.

So what changed?

I already told you, remember? It was Connor Choadsworth: In Search of the Mongolian Deathworm.

Frank Bernard Dicksee. Chivalry
Me, Creeper Guy, and Connor Choadsworth. Hint: I’m not the damsel this time. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am dead serious. Here’s the secret, the essential difference between the damsel and the hero: The damsel runs from danger because she doesn’t want to die. The hero runs towards danger because he doesn’t care if he dies. He has someone to fight for.

There’s a world of difference between fear and anger. Fear paralyzes. Anger empowers. As I sat at home staring at my iPod that day, I felt overwhelmed by the injustice, that this jerk would ruin my favorite episode of one of my favorite podcasts… well, you gotta draw a line somewhere. Wanting to defend the honor of Connor Choadsworth provided just enough rage to change my “flight” into “fight”. Having someone to fight for transformed me from damsel to hero in an instant, and heroes have options. Heroes are able to take action. So I did.

As a result, I think I better understand why people behave the way they do under stress. More importantly, I can silence the voice in my head that tells me that given the same situation, I’d do it differently. Just because I want to cast myself as the hero doesn’t mean I’ll have that option. Circumstances dictate so much. Who can know for sure what you’ll do until you’ve lived it?

For example, as the Trayvon Martin case has unfolded over the past few weeks, I found myself profoundly overwhelmed with its parallels to Creeper Guy. A pedestrian in his own neighborhood, being followed by a neighbor in a car whose intentions were unclear. The fear, the sense of danger, the inherent physical imbalance between vehicle and foot traffic. And if Creeper Guy had left his car and come after me, what would I have done? I have a bittersweet admiration for the young man who, being braver or more reckless than I am, rejected the role of the damsel outright. Hero or villain? Let God decide, but I can empathize.

The line between these roles is a thin one. We never know what role we’re going to play until we’re playing it. One can transform into another so easily with just a change of motivation. Maybe the best we can do is to be conscious of these roles, and do our best to understand each other accordingly.

Do you usually picture yourself in the role of hero when you hear other people’s stories? What should we do about it, given it’s so reflexive and automatic?