I always wanted to have a voice. What I didn’t know about were the obligations that come along with it.
Last night I sat with a group of friends and watched the Academy Awards. Aside from one meaningful look, I didn’t say anything about the Boob Song. It was exactly the brand of humor that I don’t know what to do about, because I can see why people think it’s funny, and yet, if I think about it for more than five seconds, it’s not at all funny. (Libba Bray’s suggestion, however, is.) It actually completely pisses me off, especially in reference to an already deeply misogynistic industry.
But I didn’t say anything. (Although I did splutter indignantly at the joke at Penelope Cruz’s expense that combined sexism and racism. I mean, wow.) I’d like to think it was a world-weary kind of not saying anything, but it wasn’t. It was a self-doubting, “other people find this funny so maybe there’s not actually a problem and anyway I don’t want to seem like a negative killjoy” sort of not saying anything. Even when I have a voice, it seems, it can be difficult to use it.
When I started writing, I knew very little about social issues: sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism, classism, etc. But I very quickly became aware there was a lot for me to learn, because I began following the science fiction community in early 2009, which was around the same time the Racefail conversations were happening. It was at that point that I realized how much I didn’t know and how important it was for me to start educating myself.
I still have a lot to learn. I know I don’t always get it right. But I feel strongly that with the privilege of having a voice, of becoming a writer whose works will be read, whether that’s here on the blog or in my fiction, comes the responsibility for me to learn about issues of gender, of race, of class, and of sexuality. Because whether I like it or not, whether I mean to or not, whether I am conscious of them or not, my own biases will come through in my work.
I can’t erase all my biases, certainly not in the four years I’ve been thinking more deeply on these subjects, but at the very least I can examine myself, aspire to understand more, and do what I can to counteract these biases. Because as a writer, I am engaging in the conversation of our society, and what I say (or do not say) matters. The words I choose matter.
So when I fail to say anything about a derogatory Boob Song, I have to examine that response. I have to ask myself if I’m being wishy washy in my writing, if I’m worrying about being un-fun and trying to convince myself things are fine when they aren’t instead of working harder and writing about my convictions and observations.
This kind of self reflection makes me want to tell you how offensive I find the premise of the new Oz movie, Oz the Great and Powerful, which seems like it’s going to be about all these awesome, powerful, and magical women who, in spite of their power, need a bumbling man who’s not from around here to set everything (and everyone) straight. And then I begin to wonder if the movie is going to feminize magical power while the Wizard saves the day with common sense and practical and/or technical know-how that the magical women can’t possibly do themselves. And then I think about how the original Oz stories, in spite of being written in the early 20th century and being deeply problematic in several ways, featured Dorothy and Ozma as the prominent protagonist-heroines. I think of how uncomfortable I was the first time I read The Marvelous Land of Oz at age seven when –spoiler alert–the boy protagonist Tip turned out to be the girl princess Ozma, and how this made me question gender assumptions until upon re-reading I was completely on board with that particular plot twist. And how having this movie set in the same world in 2013 only with a man to save the womenfolk seems like we’re going backwards instead of forwards.
This self examination makes me wonder how many times I’ve decided not to write about things like the Oz movie here on the blog, because it’s so much easier not to speak up.
The truth is, since I’ve begun learning and thinking about social issues, I see and experience things that make me uncomfortable all the time. And one of the most uncomfortable thoughts of all is knowing there’s so much stuff I’m missing, so many problems I’m not seeing because they’re so tightly embedded into my cultural context, into my upbringing, and into the assumptions I bring with me when I view the world. And one of the other uncomfortable thoughts is how often I keep my mouth shut.
So this is me, using the voice I worked hard to get. The Boob Song wasn’t actually funny as much as it was depressing and offensive. The Oz movie looks dreadful, even if the previews are pretty. We are all informed by the society we grew up and live in, whether we realize it or want it to be true or not.
And we can try our best to say something about what we notice and what we learn.