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Posts Tagged ‘feminism’

Don’t rock the boat, Amy.

That is the message with which I was raised. Lie low, don’t make trouble, stay quiet, pretend what’s happening isn’t really happening. At all costs, please people. Make them like you, or at least make them not notice you exist. Same difference.

Don’t rock the boat, Amy.

Which is perhaps why I find the implications behind the #KeepYAKind campaign so disturbing.

Quick recap: A critically acclaimed YA writer said a troubling and sexist thing in a public interview. Several critics have said that this writer’s portrayal of female characters leaves something to be desired. I have not read his work. (I was supposed to back in January, actually, as his latest critically acclaimed novel was a book club selection, but because I had heard of its problems, I decided to sit out that month. Life is too short, and I have way too many books to read.) As a result of this public interview, there was a public conversation about the problematic nature of this writer’s public comments and his work. There may or may not have been inappropriate behavior (aka harassment and bullying) towards this writer. I haven’t seen any evidence of it myself, but I didn’t spend a lot of time looking for it. #KeepYAKind was a Twitter campaign aimed at stopping the public criticism and conversation. The Booksmugglers write in more detail about it all.

Don’t rock the boat, Amy.

Photo Credit: Putneypics via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Putneypics via Compfight cc

It is easy to imagine that whoever started #KeepYAKind had the best of intentions. We all like kindness, right? We don’t want to live and work in a community that supports bullying, do we? Of course we don’t.

The problem with #KeepYAKind is that, like many things on the internet, it lacks nuance. It distracts the focus from one problem–sexism in the publishing industry and YA fiction–and puts it on another problem. And it does so in a muddied way that, whether intentionally or not, works to shut down the conversation about sexism. In such a way it defends the status quo. It says, “Be quiet, women. You’re not allowed to talk about this problem because it isn’t nice.”

No, it isn’t nice. That is the entire point. Sexism isn’t nice. Being seen as a mysterious creature who is stranger and less fathomable than a giant alien insect isn’t nice. Being told not to discuss problematic things in fiction, even if you are a professional reviewer and THAT IS YOUR JOB, isn’t nice. (And, I mean, shouldn’t we all be allowed to discuss problematic things in fiction? I think so.)

But don’t rock the boat. Never mind that it’s sprung a leak or ten.

Whenever I see #KeepYAKind, I think #KeepYANice. Nice is don’t rock the boat. Nice is be a doormat, don’t stand up, don’t enforce your boundaries, don’t speak up when there’s a problem. Nice is not expressing an opinion that might be uncomfortable or difficult or controversial.

#KeepYAKind ignores the reality that sometimes the obvious act of kindness is not the best nor correct nor sustainable thing to do. Amy of a few years ago would have been shocked that I’m saying that, but I sincerely believe it to be true. Kindness is great, but sometimes you have to protect yourself. Sometimes you have to stand up for yourself. Sometimes you have to stand up for other people too.

Sometimes you have to point out things that are problematic. Sometimes it’s your job to review and analyze a novel or a play or a movie, in which case it is certainly not your job to be kind. It is your job to be insightful and to shed light. It is your job to tell us your opinion. And some people are going to think publicly discussing a negative opinion isn’t very kind either. That’s their prerogative. It doesn’t change the job of those of us who analyze culture and media and society. We aren’t here to sugarcoat. We are here to talk about the things that need to be talked about.

Don’t rock the boat, Amy.

Someone told me recently that acknowledging problematic stuff gives it power. I couldn’t disagree more. Because when we aren’t allowed to acknowledge that something is going on, then nothing will ever change. The problem remains invisible. The status quo is effortlessly maintained. And when everyone is working together to pretend the problem doesn’t exist, it makes us begin to question ourselves, spending our energy on feelings of confusion and isolation instead of on positive change. Keeping busy ignoring a problem DOES NOT MAKE IT GO AWAY. I know some people think it does. I tend to not get along very well with those people.

Now, maybe this writer truly is a very nice guy. From all accounts, he is. And I have compassion for him, because saying something stupid in a public interview and then having the internet fall on your head can’t be very pleasant. Having to really deeply think about the fact that you find giant grasshopper aliens to be less mysterious than women can’t be very pleasant either. And I’m sure some people made disparaging remarks and the like, and that sucks. The internet kind of sucks. Being a public figure kind of sucks.

But we are still accountable, as artists and writers and human beings, for the words we say and the work we create. And that sucks too. It is hard to hold yourself accountable and still be brave enough to create. It’s hard to be an artist knowing you’ll screw up and make mistakes and probably say something really stupid in public someday. It’s hard to admit that perfection is not achievable, and that all we can do is the best we can, and then try to keep learning. It’s hard to realize that our work can be part of the problem, even if we had the very best of intentions.

But that doesn’t mean we should stop talking about the problems in our literature and our pop culture and our society. That doesn’t mean we should stop thinking critically. That doesn’t mean we should look away when there’s a problem, burying our collective heads in the sand. It takes a lot of bravery to be an artist, and it also takes a lot of bravery to acknowledge a problem when it exists so we can work toward increased awareness and change. Both of these roles are important.

Don’t rock the boat? Whatever. I’ve already flipped the damn thing over.

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O Woman, you are so mysterious to me. Surely you are a mythical creature, or if not mythical, then at least exceedingly rare (and definitely not approximately half the population).

O Woman, your skin is so soft, your breath is so sweet, your eyes are so large (enhanced, as they are, by the cosmetics industry trying to make them soft and sweet and as much like a doe’s or an anime character’s as possible). And behold, you have breasts, wonder of all wonders, and therefore you must be aware of them constantly as you move through your life with them at the helm.

O Woman, I do not wish to pierce the veil of your Mystery. I do not wish to contemplate that you think as I think, that you feel as I feel, that you dream as I dream, and that you bleed as I bleed. It is your tantalizing Difference that attracts me, and therefore must we not be different in many respects?

A Mythical Creature

A Mythical Creature

Because, O Woman, haven’t you heard? The female brain is different, in the essentials, from the male brain. This is because of evolution. It has nothing to do with socialization and our society’s obsession with gender but is one hundred percent about biology.

When you get grumpy, O Woman, I will condescendingly explain that it is PMS. (Even though it could be that you’re hungry, or that you’re tired, or that I’m being a condescending ass.) When I don’t immediately understand your behavior, I will assume it is because of Mystery. (Even though I could instead use my words and attempt to communicate.) And when you are right about something, I will attribute your success to Feminine Intuition. (Even though intuition is a tool used by both men and women in both the Arts and the Sciences, and you may simply be right because of Intelligence.)

O Woman, you are so alluring. You make me do things. You make me lose control. It’s because of the clothes you wear, or maybe it’s the way you smell, or maybe it’s simply because you are mythical and therefore I must Possess you. You are so confusing that your no doesn’t mean no the same way my no means no. Of course not. Your no contains infinite meanings, all of which allow me to experience your Mystery exactly the way I want.

I deserve you, O Woman. You are my promised prize, my reward for existing in a world in which we all suffer. And when you lead, you are bossy, and when you raise your voice, you are strident and shrill. And when you cry, you prove that you are indeed the weaker sex because emotions, as we all know, equal fragility. A real man doesn’t cry, and an unreal man is even more mythical than you.

O Woman, you are so mysterious to me. Let me use your Mystery to make you disappear.

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Lately I’ve been feeling like a bad feminist.

It kicked up a gear last month when my feminist book club read Feminism is for Everyone, by bell hooks. I learned a lot from the book, but the entire time I was reading it, I was thinking, “Wow, I feel like I’m really falling short, and I don’t even really understand how.” It talked about raising consciousness, and I’m pretty sure my consciousness is completely NOT raised. Whatever that means.

This month we’re reading Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay, which is making for a nice change of pace. Roxane Gay is smart and insightful and funny, and she also seems like she isn’t perfect, which is reassuring since I am also far from perfect.

For example, I have this fascination with eye makeup. It all started when my friend was visiting this coast from Boston, and the friends he was staying with invited me to stay for dinner. It was a lovely evening of good food and even better company, but I kept being distracted by the woman’s eyelashes. She had AMAZING eyelashes. And I was sitting there at the table, wondering if she glued on fake eyelashes every morning or if she was able to work these wonders with mascara, and if so, why had I never been able to work similar wonders with mascara?

Thus began my fascination. It started with mascara experimentation, but after some months I branched out to an interest in eyeliner and different colors of eye shadow. And a few weeks ago I took a field trip to Sephora and obtained this fat eyeliner pencil that is a modern wonder of cosmetics.

Flawed Feminist

Flawed Feminist

And every time I play with eye makeup, I know I’m probably being a bad feminist. I’m propagating a certain ideal of feminine beauty, and I guess as a feminist I’m supposed to deliberately subvert that ideal, and I don’t. I get almost as annoyed when people imply I shouldn’t wear makeup as I do when people imply I must wear makeup. I want to look the way I want to look, and I want to wear what I want to wear, and I don’t want to care about the messages I’m sending or the subconscious misogynistic ideas I’ve no doubt internalized over the years. And so I wear makeup when I feel like wearing makeup.

Also, when I’m on a date with a guy, I allow him to pay. I’m pretty sure a good feminist would not do this. My rule is never assume, but accept graciously. I cannot pretend that this is motivated by anything but self-interest. I don’t want to get into an argument about who’s paying for dinner (conflict adverse, me?), and also, it’s really nice when someone buys you dinner. The allure of free food and being fed, which to all rights should have died down after college, remains strong. The allure of being treated remains strong. It’s also super unfair, and I know this, and yet. I accept graciously.

Even my language is suspect, and for a writer, this is inexcusable. I like to say and write “you guys.” I like to say, “Man.” I know a good feminist would never say or write these things. And I do try to avoid this gendered language sometimes, especially in tweets. But there aren’t any good alternatives! I’ve tried “you all,” but I’m not from Texas and I’ll never be from Texas. “You people” is horrible. “Friends” sometimes works, but not always. And the best substitutes for “Man” are all profanity. So I have to choose between saying “Man” and swearing a lot.

I imagine if I had my consciousness raised, I wouldn’t do any of these things. I’d effortlessly never say “you guys” and I wouldn’t wear any makeup EVER EVER and I’d insist on going Dutch every single time. So where does this leave me?

I guess it leaves me far from perfect. But that doesn’t mean feminism isn’t important to me. That doesn’t mean being a feminist isn’t part of my identity. I think what it really means is that I’m human and flawed and complicated, and aren’t we all?

You guys, I’m a bad feminist. But even so, I’d rather be a bad feminist grappling with these issues than not be a feminist at all.

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I imagine a better world for myself.

I imagine a world in which sexual harassment is not a common reality, in which consent matters and communication matters and female bodies aren’t so objectified that it becomes easy to forget there’s a person here in this body. In which harassment is strictly not allowed instead of being given a pass or labeled a misunderstanding. In which no always means no and nobody is trying to pretend that isn’t actually true so they can feel better about the horrible way they have treated other people.

I imagine a world in which people don’t tell me what to do unprompted, and people don’t explain things to me that I already know, and people don’t tell me incorrect information about things about which I already know and then won’t listen when I gently question this false information. A world in which I am not shut down when I try to express my opinion or reservations.

I imagine a world in which there are more choices for me than just the Virgin and the Whore. In which I am not shamed for having a body, for how I dress, for the existence of sexuality. In which I am not pressured, repeatedly, to do things I am not comfortable doing. In which vulnerability is not a weakness to be exploited. In which the word “tease” is never used as a weapon. In which I don’t have to worry about the possibility of being physically forced.

I imagine a world in which instead of being told I’m too emotional, my feelings matter. In which the boundaries I set are actually taken seriously. In which people take responsibility for their bad behavior instead of expecting me to be run over by a bus on their behalf. In which there isn’t an expectation that we’ll all just pretend that didn’t happen. In which my discomfort with bad behavior is met with neither anger nor denial. In which people know that empathy doesn’t mean just caring about someone but involves understanding their perspective and feeling compassion on their behalf.

I imagine a world in which people don’t feel entitled to me, to my body, to my time, to my energy. In which basic decency doesn’t expect a reward. In which my choices are celebrated instead of constrained. In which people don’t use manipulation tactics to attempt to control me. In which instead we are gifts to each other, freely given but not taken for granted.

I imagine a world in which I am surrounded by amazing and supportive people. In which none of us are perfect but all of us are willing to own the issues that are ours. In which we’ve learned how to listen, and how to apologize, and how to respect, regardless of gender or color or class or orientation.

And then I imagine myself. I imagine setting boundaries, standing up for myself, and rejecting the pervasive message that I do not matter. I imagine treating myself with the kindness and respect I used to reserve for others. I imagine allowing others to experience the consequences of their behavior without shouldering any of their responsibility. I imagine shedding shame like a skin I’ve outgrown.

Yes. I can be that woman.

Maybe I already am.

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I am not in a good mood right now.

I have spent the last few weeks dealing with my landlord and his real estate agent, both of whom act like they’re doing me huge favors by, say, not illegally breaking my lease or being willing to pay for professional cleaners to clean their property before their open house event. No acknowledgment is being made of the fact that I am the person in this situation who is hemorrhaging money and time and stress from the inconvenience.

Where is our compassion?

I am supposed to be appalled at how non-inclusive the science fiction community is becoming because of the recent hoop-la about this year’s Hugo host. Did things get out of hand? Yes. And ultimately both sides of this drama suffered. How terrible it must be to have to worry about having your win of a major writing award punctuated with a joke about your weight or gender. Can we stop for a moment and imagine what that would feel like? (Kameron Hurley has more to say about this, and it’s worth reading.) And how unfortunate that the con committee didn’t prepare Jonathan Ross for the current climate of SF&F and take more care in making and presenting their choice. Meanwhile, how ironic that this is being held up as an example of science fiction not being inclusive, when the circumstances from which this situation arose exist because of a backlash against science fiction not being inclusive.

Where is our compassion?

I recently had a conversation with a female writer, who also happens to be a mother, about how she was told that since she is a mother, she will never be as good a writer as either someone with no kids OR a man who is a father. How painful a comment that is, to tell a serious writer, “Nope, sorry, since you have reproduced, you’ll never live up to the rest of us. Oh, and by the way, if you were a man, this wouldn’t apply.” Painful, unnecessary, and untrue.

Where is our compassion?

Photo Credit: jorgempf via Compfight cc

Now that I try to be very mindful about setting boundaries and standing up for myself (go, Backbone Project, go), I notice it all the time, this lack of compassion. Some of it is simple thoughtlessness, and some of it is deeper and more troubling. Some of it is people who honestly feel if they can get away with taking advantage of somebody, then they should do it. I have been told there are entire cultures based on this principle.

There are two obvious choices when confronted by this problem:

Choice 1: Shut up, sit down, pretend everything is fine, blame everything on yourself, learn to believe your emotions aren’t valid or important, become used to being treated like there’s something wrong with you for having perfectly normal emotional responses to being treated badly, take what is given and be thankful for even that much, lose your voice if you ever had one to begin with, or else never learn to speak in the first place, let people trod all over you as you sink deeper and deeper into the muck and learn to value yourself as little as you’re being valued. In short, be a victim.

Choice 2: Stand up and demand respect. Value yourself. Protect yourself. Set boundaries and don’t allow yourself to be talked or shamed out of them. Be compassionate, but do not allow your compassion to be used against you. Trust people, but only when the trust is deserved. Love people, but do not try to save them because they’ll be perfectly happy to pull you down with them. Give yourself the compassion other people may not be willing or able to give you.

With the landlord situation, I picked Choice 2, and I am now going to be compensated for my time and inconvenience. This would never have been the result if I hadn’t spoken up. Loudly. More than once. And I’m prepared to do it again.

Where is our compassion?

It starts with ourselves.

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I don’t generally do many link round-ups, but I have so many interesting links open in my browser right now, and they deserve to be shared. So if you were feeling short of reading material this week, mourn no longer.

Female Creators in Science Fiction and Fantasy Television

This is such an important essay that it probably deserves an entire dedicated post by me, but I’m sharing it now in case I don’t get around to it.

The Truth of Wolves, Or: The Alpha Problem

The alpha-beta system of wolf behavior is actually incorrect. And yet we still use this system, one that often encourages misogynist behavior, in werewolf-based urban fantasy. Why?

Sexism at Fantasy Book Cafe

While I’m sharing Foz Meadows, I’ll also point you to her response to the post on how there isn’t actually much sexism in literature, during a theme month of focusing on Women in SF&F. Gah.

Why Do Men Keep Putting Me in the Girlfriend-Zone?

Funny and sad.

The Gender Coverup

Hopefully you’ve all seen this one by now. Maureen Johnson, a successful YA writer, talks about how book covers are gendered. It’s really worthwhile to take a look at the covers of popular books with the gender of the author changed.

It’s not about Gender

I like the analogy the author uses to make her point.

Academic Men Explain Things to Me

I find this Tumblr so valuable (and sometimes hilarious), I’ve added it to my reader.

Nerds and Male Privilege

Do yourself a favor and don’t read the comments.

For writers: Brandon Sanderson’s creative writing class is coming online this summer, and it’s FREE. Check out the details here. 

The Lethality of Loneliness

Loneliness affects physical health. No big surprise there, but an interesting read.

Student’s self driving car tech wins Intel science fair

Yay for science!

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Very soon after I decided that I wanted to be a YA writer, I learned the following “truth:” that girls will read novels with both male and female protagonists, but boys will only read novels with male protagonists. So if you want the widest crossover, you write a boy protagonist, and if you write a girl protagonist, that means you’re mostly writing for a female audience.

Then I heard the oft repeated story about how J.K. Rowling decided to use her initials as her author name so that the readers would not know she was a woman. And I heard about how YA was dominated by women writers, sometimes as though this were a bad thing.

Then I heard a couple of male writers who I respect talking about the problem of there not being enough boy books in YA. Later on, I heard about what a problem it was that there were too many female protagonists and “girl books” in modern YA.

Shall I define “boy book” for you? A boy book probably has a male protagonist. It features action and adventure and is quick paced. It probably doesn’t have much if any romance. The language and structure might also be more straightforward and simple, since one of the main reasons having YA boy books is supposed to be important is to encourage reluctant boy readers to read.

A “girl book,” by contrast, probably has a female protagonist. It may have action and adventure and be quick paced. It almost certainly includes a romantic element. It might focus more heavily on social interactions and relationships in general, as well as issues of social status (because of course, men aren’t interested in status at all. Ha!). There might also be a stronger focus on emotions. The language and structure run the gambit between simple and complex.

I’m not going to mince words: these truths about boy readers, the YA genre, and boy and girl books are harmful and sometimes flat-out false. If boys won’t read books with girl protagonists, especially by the time they are teenagers, this is not a good reason to write and publish fewer books with girl protagonists. This is a red flag that something is wrong with the message our society is sending to these boys.

Often this argument gets lost in the rush to emphasize the importance of boys learning to read. It’s fine to perpetuate this “truth” of boys being unwilling to read anything not entirely male-centered, the unstated message goes, as long as we can wheedle them to read anything at all. And this is how sexist thinking gets passed on to the next generation.

Obviously boys learning to read is important. It’s important that everyone learn to read. And it’s also important that we throw away outdated and harmful ideas about gender and stop teaching boys that girls and anything related to girls are somehow shameful or uninteresting or embarrassing. THESE CAN BOTH BE IMPORTANT AT THE SAME TIME. Revolutionary idea, I know.

If YA did have such a predominance of female protagonists, I’d be happy, given all the messages female teens receive to the contrary, that there was at least one place where they could experience other females being front and center, having agency and their own individual identities. But it is not necessarily even true that YA has more female protagonists than male. According to this study, 49% of YA protagonists are male. 49%. And only 36% of YA protagonists are female. (15% have protagonists of both genders.)

You know what else isn’t true? That YA is dominated by women writers. The same study found that 56% of YA writers were women, which is hardly an overwhelming majority.

When we talk about female protagonists in YA books as if they’re somehow a bad thing, we’re strengthening harmful stereotypes. When we believe boys won’t read books with female protagonists, we’re sending them the message that they shouldn’t want to, or that there’s some kind of problem with reading these so-called “girl books.”

The Feminist Batwoman wrote a fabulous essay called “Boys Don’t Read Girl Books and Other Lies My Society Told Me.” She ran a successful experiment exposing her little brother to novels about girls as well as boys, and she has this to say about boys not reading books with girl protagonists: “My outlandish theory is that if boys aren’t belittled for reading books about girls, if they’re not taught that girls are lesser, if they’re not teased about cooties, if we don’t teach them to fear the feminine… they’d probably like more “girl” stuff.”

We need to stop talking about boy books and girl books as if this is some kind of important and valid distinction. We need to wake up and realize that 56% of YA writers being women does not mean that women dominate the genre. And we need to think long enough to realize that if girls are happily reading novels with protagonists of both genders, there’s no reason we can’t work towards encouraging boys to do the same. Plenty of boys already do.

For a long time I took these assumptions about YA and YA readers for granted. I’m guessing I’m not the only one. Therefore, if you think this is an important and interesting issue, I encourage you to share this essay or start a conversation with your friends and colleagues. Let’s challenge what everyone knows and find out what lies underneath, shall we?

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