89 posts categorized "wimmin stuff"

October 30, 2014

Street Harassment Dudebro F.A.Q.

 

I'm sick right now, but the kerfuffle around this video has driven me back to blogging.

I'm so exercised over some of the comments I've been seeing that I've actually been commenting on YouTube, oG help me, so I've created an F.A.Q. to respond to the comments, apologia, and excuses most frequently made by dudebros on this topic. (Btw, a lot of these are drawn from comments I've already made elsewhere.)

 

But the so-called "harassment" in the video is mostly just guys being nice and saying "Hello" or complimenting her! Why are you feminazis so opposed to mere human interaction?

You think that because you've never been the recipient of said "niceness" or "compliments" so you don't know where they're headed.

Street harassers do not expect women to respond, much less to actually develop relationships (*extreme eye roll*) with them. What they expect, and want, is for women to feel vulnerable and powerless before them. Why else would a man follow a woman who is totally ignoring him for five minutes? Why else would a man stand on the street and call out to women who all totally ignore him, for hours? If he wants an interaction, he's failing and being humiliated, but if he wants her to feel scared and creeped out, and gets off on the power of that, then calling out to her and following her makes total sense. That's why he does it.

Most or all of us women and girls have started out our public adult lives by being greeted and "complimented" by such men and taking the interaction at face value. Most or all of us have responded with a pleased or confident "hello" or a "thank you" back as we've walked past. And what happens then? Please note again what I wrote directly above. The catcall is not intended to create friendliness or confidence in the woman, so a friendly or confident response does not get the guy what he wants.

So what happens then is that he immediately becomes aggressively sexual, asking the woman out, plastering her with increasingly sexual and intimate "compliments", making sexual suggestions, even sometimes crowding her or touching her. He does this until she is forced to start ignoring him or responding negatively -- either one will do, because both mean that she has started to feel vulnerable. Then he either lets her go, having made his point, or he caps it off by calling insults after her in a purely angry and aggressive tone of voice. Nothing makes a woman feel more vulnerable than a man angrily yelling "bitch! cunt!" at her in front of a bunch of other men who do nothing.

All women in cities have experienced this (unless they've never gone out alone). And all women who have had this experience a few times know that the only way to deal with it is to ignore it. Any response only escalates the situation. A guy who will stand on a street corner and yell at women who pass is a guy prepared to escalate until he gets what he wants. Women know subconsciously, in our guts, what is meant by a catcall, and we respond appropriately. You men, who have never had to deal with this type of situation, have absolutely no idea what catcalls are about, and have no right to try to tell us that we're wrong.

 

I agree that the dudes following her are creepy (what's that about?) but everything else is just people being friendly! (Add in "you fascist cunt" or dudebro insult of your choosing here.)

Again, it's not one thing or the other; it's not a nice interaction or a gross imposition. It's a continuum. Some guys will only say "nice" sounding things, if aggressively. Some guys will say really gross and aggressive things. Some guys will threaten, some guys will touch, some guys will follow, some guys will hit. You never know until the incident is over how bad it will get.

I've been grabbed, groped, butt-slapped, followed for blocks, had disgusting sexual practices suggested to me, had my body examined and described in great detail, been told I was beautiful, been told I was ugly, often by the same person in the same incident, been called a bitch, whore, cunt, sweetheart, baby, girl, had my biraciality praised, then insulted, and my racial makeup broken down and praised, then insulted piece by piece, been pursued around a subway car by someone taking upskirt photos, been rubbed up against in public transportation, been flashed, masturbated at, crotch-grabbed at, lurched at from out a darkened doorway (to no purpose except the entertainment of the lurcher), etc. etc. It all feels the same. The only difference is in how threatened you feel; but you feel threatened no matter what, because they are all threats.

The problem is not that we're too stupid to understand the difference between a real interaction and harassment. The problem is that there is just so. damn. much. harassment.

 

This video is so stupid! 10 hours and THAT'S all that happened? What a whiner!

I actually agree that the video, as it is edited, is not effective. The point of the video is not, and should not be, the type of harassment she's receiving, but rather the sheer volume of it. The video says that in 10 hours she had over 100 incidents of street harassment. Unfortunately, the video doesn't show it, and I think that's a huge missed opportunity.

Because there are really two points here: the first is what I detailed above: a "hello" or a "compliment" are not what you think they are. But the second point is the sheer volume of such encounters. Over 100 incidents in 10 hours? That's 10 incidents per hour, or more than one incident every ten minutes. Try to imagine that, dudebros. Try to imagine having to field "hellos" and "compliments" and demands for your attention from aggressive men every ten minutes of your life. (And it's not just on the street, but we won't get into workplace harassment here.) I know you guys have your own street interaction issues: check-ins and body checks and dominance play. But at the frequency of more than one every ten minutes, every time you leave the house, every day, for the rest of your life? I don't think so. Try to imagine it. Just try.

 

Aw, that's just New York. They're all assholes there. I'm from a small town and nobody behaves like this. We're all friendly to each other. 

I would imagine in a small town, where everyone knows each other and reputations really matter, there would be repercussions for harassment, but also for unfriendliness. Cities are different. There's no penalty for being unfriendly, and none for harassment, as evidenced by the reactions of men to the video, and even to this post. 

And also, men's and women's experiences are different. Most men simply don't know the type and amount of harassment that women experience every day -- because we don't tell them (because of the way that men typically react when we do tell them) and because it usually doesn't happen when we're *with* other men. It's not just "Hellos" or fake compliments.  The last time I counted, I rarely went a week without an incident, and often didn't go a day without at least one incident. I haven't set foot outside my door without headphones on and blaring since 1999. And my experiences are not unusual

I'm sick of men telling me what to think about the behavior of men they don't know and have never seen in action. You will never experience the street the way a woman does. You will never know what it's like to spend all day, every day, for your entire adult (and teenaged, and tweenaged) life braced for a verbal assault that inevitably comes. I don't know what it's like in small towns; I've never lived in one. But I know what it's like for a woman in a city. And I can tell you uncategorically: the quality of life for women in cities would be improved at least 1000% if no strange men EVER talked to us except if they had legitimate business. Once again, there are thousands of places and situations to meet people and socialize, and street harassers do not harass to socialize or meet people.

 

#notallmen

Believe me, we are all of us women aware of that. Not all men harass. Not even most men harass. Not even a majority of men harass. Not even a large minority of men harass. We know. We know better than you do, because we're the ones who see the harassment. We're the ones who walk past 100 men who don't even notice us, before encountering the daily asshole who harasses.

But #allwomen are harassed on the street, unless they don't walk alone, or don't live in a city. I challenge you to find a single living woman who has ever lived in a city and walked in the city alone and never been harassed. All. Women.

If you do not harass, good for you, I guess (or rather, good for us; you shouldn't be praised for behaving the way you're supposed to), but that doesn't change the fact that the relatively small minority of men who harass manage to do it to all women. And this conversation is not about how horrible you are. This conversation is about how to stop the harassment that you are not committing but other people are. So stop making this all about you.

If you would like it to be about you, maybe make it about how from now on you're going to be more aware of what is happening to women in front of you in public and how you're going to take action to stop it.

 

I have to (be the fifty thousandth person to) point out the elephant in the room here: all the guys harassing her are black. It must be part of their culture (or replace with racist insult of your choosing.) But the rest of us aren't like that (stated baldly or by implication.)

In case you were wondering, what you just said was racist. *Gasp!* How dare I?

It doesn't matter if your comment was "All n****rs!" as I saw several times on YouTube or "I noticed that all of the harassers are African American. I think it's part of the masculinity-building in their culture " (or, as some people called it, "hip hop culture.") Doesn't matter. Either way, what you're saying is that it's racially inherent for black men to be misogynist, and that is not true.

What is true is that:

  1. this is a huge can of worms and deserves its own post, which I might write later;
  2. there are a lot of folks who've written (probably way better than I could) about the topic so you should read them; 
  3. race doesn't just affect who harasses, but who is harassed and how severely; and
  4. the race argument is just a racist version of #notallmen.

 

But wait! Am I not allowed to talk to women AT ALL? How am I supposed to meet women?"

Yes, if walking up to a total stranger in the street is the only way you can meet women, then there is something seriously wrong with the way you're living your life. Street harassment is not about meeting people! It's about expressing power on total strangers, so that you can feel powerful at someone else's expense, without there being any repercussions for you.

If you are idiotic enough to believe that men harass women on the street to try to find girlfriends and you've been trying to emulate them, that might explain your lack of success with women. So, YES, YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO TALK TO WOMEN YOU DON'T KNOW ON THE STREET ANYMORE. If you can't meet women at school, work, church (if you swing that way), volunteering, through your friends, through your interests and hobbies, at shows, on the internet (like everyone else), or even, as a last resort, in bars, then you are a huge loser, and women trying not to be harrassed in the street has nothing to do with your problem. Jeezus.

March 11, 2013

Check-In

I don't really have much to say. Haven't lately, which is why I haven't posted. But I did promise (myself) that I'd post weekly, and I'm way overdue. So here's what I've been thinking about:

  1. Was told recently by a friend trying to sell an urban fantasy series that the agents say UF is over. It's a depressing thing to say when you've just told somebody you're working on a UF series. Also: do I care if the industry says "UF is over"? If I do actually finish this book and nobody buys it, I'll just post it on the web.
  2. If I got well again, would I go back to being an arts administrator, especially an executive? I have no idea. I know the first thing I would do would be to go away somewhere and get da nobble finished. In fact, my first priority would be to get my writing habit reestablished (something I'm trying to do now.) But would I go back to a regular arts admin job and let it potentially swallow up my writing practice (again)? Hm.
  3. I'm going to cut my hair short this week. This is what I'm thinking. I need a short haircut that doesn't read "guy," and that works with wavy hair. Thoughts?
  4. Trying to get it through to my parents (who are in town for a month) that I can't see them every day. If I do, I can't do anything else. Sigh.
  5. This kerfuffle makes me tired. This fight was already fought. Why was it unfought? Why are we fighting it again? Argh! I love this, which is Kate Harding saying basically: we all have to live in this world and make compromises with the institutions that run it. Being a good feminist doesn't mean you never compromise; it means, rather, that you cop to your compromise when you make one, and admit that you're contributing to the status quo, even while you're explaining why you did it.
  6. And finally, this is this week's happy.

February 08, 2013

"Smash," Sexism, and Prejudice

I've been watching the TV show Smash and, although it's really not a big issues show, the latest episode this week -- which features sexual harrassment heavily in the plot -- got me thinking a lot about prejudice.

Smash is a musical drama about a broadway show. Yeah, it's the about the show and everything that goes into making a show, from the creative team coming up with the idea for a musical, through writing it, finding a producer, finding funding, casting, rehearsals, etc.

SPOILERS FOLLOW: The first season got the show -- a bio-musical about Marilyn Monroe called Bombshell -- through its initial run in Boston. Along the way, the two actresses competing for the lead succeed in destroying each others' relationships (and pretty much everything goes wrong for everyone involved as well.)

The director of the show, Derek, initially makes a pass at one of the rivals, the ingenue Karen, during the drawn out casting process. He invites her to a late night audition at his apartment, tells her she needs to be sexier, and then sits on the couch while she gives him what is essentially a lapdance, while "doing" Marilyn. Then she leaves and goes home to her boyfriend. (When the boyfriend finds out about this later, he punches Derek out.)

Then Derek makes a more direct pass at the other rival, the experienced Ivy, and she not only goes for it, but they end up in a serious relationship, where the "L" word gets used.

Throughout most of the season, both characters are up for the role. First one gets chosen, then the other, then a Hollywood actress who can't sing gets cast for a while (and has an affair with Derek while she's doing it, putting a strain on his relationship with Ivy,) then they're both being considered again. Roller coaster. Finally, Derek makes the call and he chooses Karen, i.e. NOT his serious girlfriend.

The second season starts with the reviews coming in and the show getting ready to make its first run on Broadway. But everything is going wrong: the producer is accused of using mob money, the librettist's marriage is falling apart, and ... dunh dunh duuuuuuunnnh ... the Hollywood actress accuses Derek of sexual harrassment.

And this is where things get interesting. In the second episode, apparently emboldened by the Hollywood actress's accusation, six chorus girls from other shows that Derek has done come forward and accuse him of sexual harrassment as well. In many other shows, this would be presented as just another trial of Job to be heaped onto Bombshell, i.e., not something worth exploring for its own sake. And I never would have suspected Smash of having the heart or intelligence to make something more out of this.

But then we get this scene (s2, ep2, starts at 11:20 in the video above) in which Derek seeks out and confronts one of his accusers, a chorus girl named Daisy. He mansplains to her that she doesn't understand the term "sexual harrasment" and says he never touched her. She counters that she never said he did, and then outlines exactly what he DID do, which was hit on her through four callbacks and then refuse to cast her after she definitively turned him down. He insults her talent and says that's why he didn't cast her. Then this:

Derek: Since when is it harrassment to ask someone out on a date?

Daisy: You don't get it. You're a big-shot director. You're in a position of power from the minute you wake up in the morning, and you don't treat that power with respect. Or did you really think women say yes because they actually like you?

Being a decent show and not a great show, Smash goes on to blunt this incredible scene with a cheap musical number ("Would I Lie to You") in which Derek gets pushed around by a bunch of  chorus girls, plus Karen and Ivy, dressed identically:

Although the identically dressed girls could be said to be a comment on Derek's view of women, it looks too much like that's actually the show's viewpoint (and not just Derek's) for that point to come across. It looks too much like this:



So there's that. There's also the rest of the episode, which has Ivy letting a mopey Derek off the hook. But just for a moment, the show's understanding of the world and one of its characters opens up, and you get to see some of the underlying dynamics of this world, and how this fictional world connects to the real one:

  • The Hollywood actress is actually lying. Her sexual relationship with Derek was entirely consensual and welcome, and, in fact, she had the power there, because her star power got her a role that Derek didn't want to give her. In fact, his affair with her was partly intended to boost her confidence so she could sing better, i.e. he was "servicing" her. (Of course he was also just dogging and star-fucking.) Her accusation was made so that she could save face. She quit the show because she couldn't sing, and she wanted to quell the rumors.
  • Even though she nominally has the power, because she's a woman and he's a man, his opinion of her abilities is still important and still has power over her. Note that her attack on him was, in essence, for her to take on the role of victim.
  • This is a common (and largely unwarranted) fear of women: that women will take power over men by falsely accusing them of exercising their power.
  • The show is just good enough that it can't quite make itself depict the Hollywood actress "playing the harrassment card." That whole thing happens offscreen, frankly because we wouldn't believe it if they put it onscreen.
  • Derek is a huge sexual harrasser, although clearly not a sexual assaulter, and his power has prevented anyone from stepping forward before.
  • The Hollywood actress's accusation, although false, is what finally allows Derek's real victims to come forward, because sexual harrassment is entirely about power: who has it and who doesn't. Only the powerful Hollywood actress can make such an accusation without negative repercussions, and the chorus girls require the shelter of her power to do the same.
  • Since the real accusations are enabled by the false one, this lets Derek off the hook in his own mind; the real accusations are just copy-cats of the false one, and equally false.
  • Until Daisy breaks it down for Derek, he genuinely doesn't understand what sexual harrassment is, and genuinely doesn't believe he's doing it. When she says "you didn't really believe all those women liked you?" the look on his face says it all: yes, he did really believe all those women liked him. He really didn't have a clue that it's his power, and not his attractiveness, that makes the women accessible to him. It's equally never occurred to him that his relationships have all been with women who want something that he has the power to give or withhold.

I think it was this last one that really opened something up for me. Yes, it was fiction, but it felt real; rang true, as they say. It was that Derek genuinely believed that he wasn't doing anything wrong that got to me. Because, when it comes to -isms, I always tend to look at things from the oppressed pov, and not from the -ist pov. Or at least to try to.

I understand that privileged white people think that they have a right to a spot in a university that a person of color got "through affirmative action." But I always thought that that was more about the white person thinking that POC can't possibly "deserve" a spot in a university. It had never really gotten through to me that white people think that they DO deserve the spot, have earned it, etc. Although I never thought it through in those terms, I might have thought that, were there no affirmative action, the same white complainer wouldn't complain about not getting into the school of their choice because "their" spot went to another white person. But now I'm wondering if the white complainers wouldn't complain anyway, find other reasons why they were denied their just deserts.

Now, obviously, privilege requires a lack of privilege to be privilege. If there's no lack of privilege, there's no privilege. But privilege is self-referential. It bounces off the Other, but doesn't refer to the Other.

Without the power differential, Derek wouldn't have all these willing chorus girls for his bed. And without all the willing chorus girls, he wouldn't have learned to think so well of his attractiveness. But his view of sexual dynamics is entirely self referential: girls say yes because he's attractive, not because they're afraid to say no. The latter conclusion requires you to refer to the other person, to be aware that the other person has needs and fears and other mechanics. The former conclusion is all about you.

Which leads me to clarifying for myself that prejudice is not just -- and in many cases not even primarily -- prejudice against someone, but rather prejudice for oneself, and by extension, one's own group. This should be obvious, but I've never seen anyone break it down this way (I'm sure others have, I just haven't seen it.) In antiracism we focus so much on the prejudice against, that we never end up talking about the prejudice for. But prejudice for is much more prevalent in the world, simply because the people with the power still control the media, the narrative, and the world's voice.

And this might be why the antiracism/feminist/lgbt/intergenerational/body-positive messages are so often ineffectual: because most people genuinely don't recognize that being prejudiced in favor of you and yours necessarily means that you're prejudiced against others.

That's the end of this thought for now, but I might have more to say about this in the future. Still processing.

January 12, 2013

Urban Fantasy Structures and Definitions III

OMG, so entirely this:

Urban fantasy is pretty much the only genre today exploring not only the ethics of power and consent, but also serious questions of violence and gender relations from a primarily female point of view.

And then, this:

The responses of female protagonists to violence lies at the heart of the moral and ethical ambiguity that makes for good urban fantasy. Our culture is horrified at the idea of the Dark Feminine--the woman who demands for herself the right of violence and doesn't feel bad about it.

And this:

The simple move of violating our expectations by placing a woman in the position to dish out the hurt introduces a lot more gray into areas normally considered black and white. Questions like When is violence acceptable? or What is justice, and can it be administered personally? become questions with no right answer, questions we must re-examine.

Which I don't really agree with. It would, if most UF didn't present female violence with the same lack of thoughtfulness with which action presents male violence. But it's not often reflected on, so it's often just transferring the violence over into hot wimmin bodies. Even Buffy did a lot of this.

But then, this:

The use of magic in UF is also particularly telling. Magic in fiction is the time-honored way of slipping a hand up the skirt of convention and giving her something to smile mysteriously about. It's a way to frame deep questions without getting boring; a way to explore what-ifs. Every urban fantasy novel worth its salt has magic that costs something, whether it's cash, blood, innocence, or just plain physical energy. Magic also allows more gray spaces to be opened up, so the ambiguity can breathe.

Again, word, but only if it actually DID that, instead of knee-jerkingly imposing magic on the proceedings because that's what the ladeez wants.

January 11, 2013

Urban Fantasy Structures and Definitions II

And there's this:

"There is simply something fascinating about vampires and werewolves. If there wasn't, there wouldn't be so many movies about the damned things. Or so many books. Or legends. There is something about the notion of great power coming with an awful curse, the notion of a man becoming both more than a man and less of a man at the same time that inspires the imagination. Whether it be the horror a man experiences as he loses the very things he never knew he held so dear and having to suffer that loss for all eternity, or the notion of becoming something so uncontrollable that a man would want nothing more than to die, if only for that single moment of peace. Talk all you want about those 'cheesy old Universal monster movies', but by god, those movies had heart. Those movies had soul. Those movies dealt with the very essence of what it was to be human.

Those 'cheesy old monster movies' managed to understand the very essence of what those crazy old legends were really all about.

But maybe that isn't what you like about Vampire/werewolf lore. Maybe you simply love the sheer fright of the notion of these once human beasts prowling the night, with the ability to suck a person dry of every last drop of blood whilst they slept or tear a grown man limb from limb in a heartbeat."

From here. Gotta remember this. But change "man" to "woman." This reviewer was right in saying that Underworld was structurally flawed because it was The Matrix told from Trinity's point of view. This is only ridiculous if you don't completely commit to telling The Matrix from Trinity's pov. If you do (and Underworld didn't, it's true) then you have something pretty damn cool, very urban fantasy-y, and dealing with WOMEN's issues and not men's, the way The Matrix did.

Anyway ...

January 10, 2013

Urban Fantasy Structures and Definitions

So I'm starting to see if I can put together an urban fantasy novel (and/or series) entirely by pre-plotting it. If it doesn't work, I won't write it. But I want to try writing this way, since I've never tried it. (I always start with a concept, a basic plot, even possibly an ending ... and nothing else. Then I start writing and see where it goes, leading to spending three years on a short story and ten years -- and counting -- on a novel. Trying something new now.)

So right now I'm investigating the urban fantasy novel formula. And I'm reading stuff I wanna respond to. Let's start with Carrie Vaughn's series of short posts on this (in which she never lays out the actual formula.) She does enumerate annoying clichés, though, and also says this:

I can’t help but look at the popularity of urban fantasy and ask, What is this symptomatic of? What anxiety in our culture is being expressed so eloquently in these works that they’re striking such a powerful chord in the readership, leading to phenomenal popularity?

The answer is pretty simple: these books are symptomatic of an anxiety about women and power. We have made so many gains over the last few decades. Women really can do anything, pursue nearly any career, become influential and powerful in any area. And yet. Women are still ostracized for appearing powerful. Women are still told that their role is to be deferential, nurturing, humble, self-deprecating, and they’re still criticized and marginalized when they don’t fit conventional images of femininity. Women still have to fight for acceptance in so many areas. You think this dichotomy, these mixed messages, aren’t real? Look at the coverage of Hillary Clinton’s (aka The Bitch) and Sarah Palin’s (aka Caribou Barbie) runs for office and get back to me.

So many of my pet peeves are symptomatic of this conflict: these aggressive yet conflicted women characters who are simultaneously strong yet exhibit low self esteems, who kick ass with violence but submit to the sexy alpha male. Another symptom: so many of these books only have one strong woman character, and many other female characters are stereotypical and inconsequential. Maybe lots of urban fantasy isn’t really about strong women, but about one special, chosen woman. (Thank you, Suzy McKee Charnas, for articulating this so well at Bubonicon.) There’s still anxiety about toppling the status quo. It’s possible in these worlds to have a strong woman, but not strong women.

I have to say that it's interesting to see her looking at the anxieties these fictions work on from the outside (i.e. NOT from the pov of the writers and readers.) But I think you also have to look at them from the pov of the people whose wishes are being fulfilled, i.e. the writers and readers, who are all or mostly urban professional women of childbearing (read: dating/marrying/relationships-with-men-having) age. And it's clear that these books are dealing with the confusion and anxieties of these women themselves, who want a number of conflicting things. Among these conflicting things are:

  • Personal power: the power to be and do what you want in life and in the world.
  • Negotiating power in your relationships; equality with your partner.
  • Kickassedness: the ability to protect yourself against exploitation, violence, oppression; but also the ability to appear very cool, to protect yourself in cool-looking and -seeming ways, not in gross or questionable ways. (e.g.: directly kicking someone's ass rather than being manipulative.)
  • Desirability: to men, that is. Most of these novels give very little thought to being a desirable friend/coworker/associate, much less lover, to women. Yes, sexual desirability. But only to men. This is heteronormativity, yes, but it's also about the kind of desirability that is the most problematic for urban career women. The wish being fulfilled here is to be desirable without negative consequences. (ETA: reading over this now and realizing how this sounds. I meant: sexual desirability to people with whom you have a massive, society-wide, gender-based power differential. And wanting to be desirable to them without incurring the negative consequences of being less powerful than they are. That's all.)
  • Competence: in life, but mostly in career. This never crosses over into desirability, i.e. being a desirable worker to employers and coworkers. That desirability is taken for granted, interestingly. Our heroines never have to stress about applying for a job, or even for a promotion. However, the wish fulfillment is to (grudgingly AND willingly) be acknowledged as competent/great by bosses and coworkers, who are mostly or entirely male.
  • A traditionally masculine man, who wants a contemporary, powerful woman: HA! The biggest crock, but also one of the biggest wishes being fulfilled. This one is the most regressive, but possibly the most understandable. It's wish fulfillment for women who were raised to desire the traditionally beautiful and masculine alpha male -- women for whom alternative masculinities have never been effectively promoted -- but were also raised post-second-wave-feminist, i.e. raised to take advantage of and expect to be treated as equals. This item is the one that shows up the biggest failure of second (and third) wave feminism: its failure to not just conceive of, but also actively promote, alternative masculine roles that work with the alternative roles for women we've essentially pushed through.
  • Outsider status: although all these conflicts and anxieties and desires are common and mainstream, there's still the desire to stand outside of the mainstream, to be special and also be to be a bit oppressed. This is partly adolescent, partly American (wherein our entire identity hinges on overcoming challenges and being individual), and partly guilty-white-girl. The last one is why so many urban fantasy heroines are mixed race (never just poc, though.) In this post-civil-rights-movement era, outsider status is most quickly vouchsafed by being a person of color. But, of course, no white woman REALLY dreams of being black, so it's always American Indian or Asian (although the half-Asians are usually the sidekicks.)
There are more, I'm sure, but these are the ones jumping out at me. No conclusions right now. More soon.

March 03, 2012

Reading Update: Tired of Urban Fantasy?

Raven Cursed Faith Hunter
A Perfect Blood Kim Harrison
Sins of the Demon Diana Rowland

All of these are the latest installments of urban fantasy series I've been devouring since last year. I love the combination of mystery, horror, fantasy, and romance in the genre -- not too much of any one of these genres, each of which -- except for mystery -- is largely a turn-off for me. And I really dig that the wish-fulfillment in these series can only be fulfilled by that particular combo of elements. Because it's not something simple like needing the perfect man, or needing to be vindicated by solving a crime, or needing to cleanse the Earth of an evil, or needing to find a MacGuffin. It's all of those together, plus the complicated need of a not-super-young, urban, professional woman for self-actualization ... whatever that means.

Guilty pleasures though they be, good books in this genre manage a real socio-cultural balancing act in pushing so many buttons at once, but not pushing them too hard; and in moving the character arc forward book-by-book, without either resolving too much, or repeating the central conflict over and over.

However. I'm starting to get tired of the genre. None of these latest installments really got me excited. Maybe it's because I read the series that each of them belongs to all at once, and then had to wait for the next book and kind of forgot the last book in the meantime. But I also think I've sucked the genre dry, and am sated. Pun intended.

Also! I'm tired of Kim Harrison using mixed-white-Asian features as an attention-getter, without any culture backing it up. And duuuuude, Diana Rowland actually wrote "oriental" in reference to her mixed-white-Asian character's featurs at the end of Sins of the Demon. That is SO not okay. Dude, hasn't she read Said?

I'm feeling a need for nonfiction right now. I've got a couple of ideas lined up. Stay tuned.

August 29, 2011

Reading Update: Just Disembodied Kids

I was explaining Just Kids to a friend today and she asked me if Patti Smith was a feminist. I immediately said no, although Smith might perhaps espouse feminism if you asked her directly. There's none of it in her work, though, and none of it in this book. Instead, there's her patent desire for boys, and to be a boy, both.

Until the book came out, I was a Patti Smith fan, but I had never delved into her life and wasn't aware of her association with Robert Mapplethorpe. But reading the book made the connection between Johnny in the hallway and Mapplethorpe's delicious hustlers. It all made sense. I'm not a connoisseur of her work, but I'm noticing now that she only becomes physical in the world when she's embodying a boy figure, like in "Birdland," or "Land." Her girl-bodies are all abortive, like in "Kimberly," or "Redondo Beach."

Her physicality is borrowed. And in the book, she has to be herself, so she's not physically present. She expresses no desire, no press or pressure, no sex, no gender. She's a mind wandering through a very physically enacted world, full of drag queens and drug addicts and street hustlers -- all of whom perform and live through their bodies. For most of the book she doesn't drink or do drugs, doesn't seem to experience the sex she has, goes for long periods without sex, goes for long periods without food, fails to describe the hunger she claims she felt, and finally admits to prudishness and alienation around the transgressive physicality of Mapplethorpe's photographs.

All the men she describes have physical descriptions and auras. The women only have resumes. Although she mentions many women who affected her life, reading the book is like reading a life led by a floating mind in an all-male camp.

So it meant something completely different to me than she likely intended when I saw her disclaim a "female artist" or "woman artist" identity in an interview on Youtube from 1998. Aside from my contemptuous "Way to throw all other women artists under the bus" response, I also thought: of course you don't see yourself as a woman artist. In the arts, do you see yourself as a woman at all?

June 28, 2011

On Being Harassed in the Street

Up front I'm telling you that this is about Hollaback's "I've Got Your Back" campaign, to create an online and offline movement to end street harassment. I've donated and I hope you'll consider doing the same.

Boy, it's been a long time since I posted. Actually, the last time I posted was right around the time that I moved back to San Francisco. And I'm so glad to be back.

But I don't tell people that one of the reasons I'm so glad to be back in the city is that the amount of harassment I encounter has gone waaaaaay down. The main reason I don't mention it is that the reactions of many people break my heart. Too many people, upon being told in general that I get a lot of harassment, act uncomfortable -- with me! -- and don't offer me any sympathy, much less engage in any discussion. I'm talking about abstract conversations here, where there's no immediate danger, and all I'm doing is communicating.

It's so much worse, then, when the harassment happens in front of your friends or social circle and they do nothing or act uncomfortable with you, as if you were the one who had done something wrong. I know that those situations can be sometimes scary or emotionally heightened. But think about the general emotional orientation of someone who doesn't, when the scary moment is over, automatically offer help and sympathy to a friend who has just been verbally assaulted.

I mean, c'mon, people! How hard is it to say to your friend who was just harassed, "I'm sorry you had to deal with that," or ask her "are you alright?"

It's those simple offerings that can make the difference between you being part of the problem, and you being part of the solution. Either you kick a friend who's just been kicked, or you blow on her bruise and offer her salve. Why is that such a hard choice?

The immediate sympathy and help is key, but what's an even greater act of friendship is listening, discussing, and helping your friend to process the harassment, to understand it, contextualize it, and help render it less powerful. Treating your friend as a thinking, feeling adult who is capable of understanding what has happened to her, and capable of insight, is a really important part of being an empowered woman in a society that often treats us as meat.

And the greatest act of friendship -- and righteousness -- of all is intervening on the spot, and standing up to the harasser for and with your friend.

This last one -- standing up for your friends -- should be automatic. If it isn't, maybe it's time to think long and hard about how you were raised, and what choices you learned to make to survive. Yeah, I was a bullied kid and I threw other outcasts under the bus if it would save me ... when I was in grade school. But now I'm an adult, and every failure of mine to protect and support my friends when they are attacked is my failure, not theirs. And yes, as an adult I've failed many times, or been weak or stupid in my support. But I'm glad to say that there have also been times when I was mindful enough to succeed in supporting and backing up my friends. And I strive to be that person every day.

I'm thankful for those fierce friends of mine who have done all of these things: Jaime, Patty, Cyndie, Robynn, and others whom I'm forgetting right now. (There have been so many incidents over the years, and when I was younger I deliberately forgot about it when friends failed to support me, so I managed to also forget when they did support me.)

And I'm also remembering people who shall remain nameless -- some of them people I greatly respected -- who stood by and did nothing. And, though I forgive quickly, I'll never forget. As MLK said:

In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.

You're not alone -- in being harassed, in feeling helpless, in not knowing what to do. But tackling street harassment as it happens in front of you is your responsibility, as it is the responsibility of every citizen of a free state.

Please donate to the Hollaback "I've Got Your Back" campaign, and start (or continue) to get everyone's back on this.

April 04, 2011

Quick Reading Update: More Binging

Patricia Briggs Cry Wolf
Patricia Briggs Hunting Ground
Megan Whalen Turner The Thief
Megan Whalen Turner The Queen of Attolia
Megan Whalen Turner The King of Attolia
Megan Whalen Turner A Conspiracy of Kings
Annette Curtis Klause Blood and Chocolate

Still not ready to write about Patricia Briggs' werewolf series and its gender politics. Later. Megan Whalen Turner's Thief series rocks pretty dang hard. Don't feel like analyzing it much right now, though. And Klause's becoming-classic Blood and Chocolate was great, too. Nice to see a werewolf world in which werewolves aren't analogies for humans but are actually something different.

March 23, 2011

Why You Still Need to be a Feminist

Here they are, in black and white (or red and blue, actually): the breakdown of male/female representation in the most elite publications in the country in 2010 from Vida. Here's the speculative fiction version from Strange Horizons, along with links to discussion of the above.

Spoiler alert: men review more books and get more books reviewed than women -- and by a factor of two to three, depending on the publication.

But then, there's a good reason why; more men are being published:

We looked at fall 2010 catalogs from 13 publishing houses, big and small. ... Only one of the houses we investigated—the boutique Penguin imprint Riverhead—came close to parity, with 55 percent of its books by men and 45 percent by women. Random House came in second, with 37 percent by women. It was downhill from there, with three publishers scoring around 30 percent—Norton, Little Brown, and Harper—and the rest 25 percent and below, including the elite literary houses Knopf (23 percent) and FSG (21 percent). Harvard University Press, the sole academic press we considered, came in at just 15 percent.

I speculated that independents ... would turn out to be more equitable than the big commercial houses. Boy, was I wrong. ... Graywolf, with 25 percent female authors, was our highest-scoring independent. The cutting-edge Brooklyn publisher Melville House came in at 20 percent. The doggedly leftist house Verso was second-to-last at 11 percent. Our lowest scorer? ... Dalkey Archive Press ... it would be nice if more than 10 percent of [their books] were by women. (In the 2011 edition of Dalkey’s much-lauded Best European Fiction series, edited by Aleksandar Hemon, 30 percent of the stories are by women.)

... these numbers we found show that the magazines are reviewing female authors in something close to the proportion of books by women published each year.

So now you know.

Of course, this plays out across all elite and desirable fields:

According to a fact sheet published last year by the AFL-CIO’s Department for Professional Employees, in 2008, women constituted 32.4 percent of all lawyers and 32.2 percent of physicians and surgeons. (We’re 68.8 percent of psychologists, 92 percent of nurses, and 50.4 percent of technical writers, the only type of writer included in the report.)

We've evened out in law school and med school ... but then we outnumber men in MFA creative writing programs, and look at the publication and review numbers. So there are actually several moments of concern.

And, of course, Jessa Crispin at Bookslut uncovers further isshoes:

After talking with editor after editor, a pattern started to emerge. "We don't get enough submissions by women." At each publication I talked to, women were submitting an average of 35% of manuscripts, poems, articles, and pitches.

Which, of course, leads us to (part of the reason) why:

There's something about the culture at some of these places listed at Vida that make me think I would never in a million years be accepted there, and after taking a sampling of some female writer friends, I'm not the only one. Take the Atlantic, for example. Their rates of publishing women were not as devastatingly horrible as, say, The New York Review of Books. (What the fuck, NYRB?) But the women they are perhaps best known for publishing are Caitlin Flanagan, who writes about how abortion is bad, sex is bad, staying at home with the kids is awesome, doing her husband's laundry gives her purpose. Also Sandra Tsing Loh, who writes about her infidelity, the breakup of her marriage, being a bad mother. There is absolutely nothing about The Atlantic that screams out to me: We are totally respectful of women and their various viewpoints, and we'd be interested in publishing the work of a single, globetrotting, pro-choice feminist who does not under any circumstance want to write about her relationships, her femininity, or her sex life.

Hm. That's starting to sound strangely familiar.

So here we are again, folks. And, as usual, my response to all of this is to want people to do something about it. Only this time, instead of giving advice to others, I'm doing something myself.

If women aren't submitting at all in the proportions in which they are actually writing (and I've made that contention myself before) then let's get women submitting their work. I'm working on a way and will have more to say about that later. But here's a beginning.

March 13, 2011

The Apocalypse Artist on Stretcher

ShieldsSeeSaw

Hello everyone! A collaboration I worked on has just been posted on Stretcher, the local San Francisco arts webzine.

The feature is called See|Saw, and features works by artists and writers responding to each other. I was supposed to look at artist Christine Shields' work and respond to it, but she and I decided to get a little more complicated than that. She showed me a couple of her paintings, then I wrote a story responding to them. Then she read an early draft of my story and made a painting responding to that. (That's, of course, the painting you see above.)

Here's the post.

It was a really fun project and I look forward to seeing future See|Saw projects!

March 12, 2011

Reading Update: Bestiality and Violence

Patricia Briggs Bone Crossed
Patricia Briggs Silver Borne
Chuck Palahniuk Fight Club
Malinda Lo Huntress
Robin McKinley Beauty and the Beast
Seanan McGuire Late Eclipses
Patricia Briggs River Marked

Not gonna comment much here, except to say that Fight Club, which I finally read, is the male version of the woman-centered dark urban fantasies I've been bingeing on. Think about it. I might have more to say about the genre later.

McKinley's Beauty and the Beast was very readable, but not much of a departure, after all the Beauty and the Beast stuff that's happened since. Maybe this is the book that started it, who knows.

Huntress was fun, and it's always great to visit Lo's fantasy world in which same-sex relationships are a simple fact of life. But I was expecting more of an Asian fantasy world, and the world was still dominated by western fairy myths and monsters and magic. So I was disappointed there. But still good, solid YA fantasy, and beautifully written to boot.

March 10, 2011

Reading Update: Trigger Happy

Laurie Halse Anderson Speak

What a great book (despite the ending, which wrapped up a little too neatly)! A girl starts high school an outcast because of something she did over the summer: dropped by all of her friends, and incapable of speaking up for herself. It becomes clear [SPOILER], long before she addresses it, that she was raped at a party and feels disempowered and silenced as a result. Anderson does a fantastic job of layering in the symbolic and the subtle, exploring how time and growth can bring a person's power and voice back, and all the various ways in which teenage girls are silenced. I was particularly struck by how she shows girls being punished for speaking up: by their parents, teachers, classmates, and even their friends.

The protag starts out looking passive and victimized, but by the end of the book, you realize that perhaps she's the strongest character of all of these. Her instinct to be silent may be less the instinct of the eternal victim than that of the wounded predator who hides in her den to lick her wounds. When she comes roaring out at the end, it's not at all unexpected or inconsistent.

Also, I finally understand about trigger warnings. Speak was totally triggering me at the beginning, before Anderson started delving into the reasons behind the protag's ostracism. The bullying and ostracism itself was so upsetting to me that I was reading a page or so at a time and then pacing around my house (or the BART station, or wherever) yelling silently in my head at various characters in the book and memories in my head. Angry angry and frustrated. I finally realized I was doing it and managed to settle down and focus on the book -- but only by distancing myself from it somewhat.

My only quibble: the book is written in first person. It kind of (as in, very much) detracts from the power of the protag's silence when she is speaking to us throughout the book. If it had been in third person, particularly if it was sometimes close third and sometimes objective third, the times the protag spoke would have been infinitely more powerful, without the author losing the ability to get inside her head.

Otherwise, strongly recommended for teen girls and boys.

February 14, 2011

Reading Update: I'm Busy

Diwata Barbara Jane Reyes
Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake Sarah Maclean
Ten Ways to Be Adored When Landing a Lord Sarah Maclean
Faking It Jennifer Crusie
Welcome to Temptation Jennifer Crusie
Chinatown Beat Henry Chang

I'm not too busy to read, just too busy to write much about it.

Diwata I'm reviewing in the next issue of Hyphen, so keep an eye out for it there or on the website. I'm also reviewing Henry Chang's third novel in his Jack Yu series, so I'm reading the first two as well, Chinatown Beat being the first. I'll have more to say latah.

The Sarah Macleans and Jennifer Crusies were recommended by Gwenda Bond in a post about romance books. Jennifer Crusie? RAWK! Faking It is an awrsome romance between a con artist and an art forger, who have really REALLY bad sex the first few times they get together -- you know, kinda like real life? -- but persist because they really REALLY like each other. The prose is witty and energetic and the author actually knows something about art and how artists work, which is unusual in literature in general, and especially so in genre. I liked Welcome to Temptation too, but not as much.

Sarah Maclean? Meh, not so much. These two are Regencies, which is fine, of course, but any Regency romance writer is going up against Austen and Heyer, and those are hard acts to follow. Throwing in a bow and scrape here and "an air of decided fashion" there isn't gonna do it. Especially if, as Maclean does, you have your characters having sex every time they're alone in a room together. Not in a Regency romance, my dear. I did enjoy the premise of Nine Rules, which is that the beauty-challenged spinster protag begins to realize that nothing is ever going to happen to her, so she writes out a list of all the things she would like to do if she weren't afraid, and then goes and does them. Her passion and energy attract the notice, then love, of London's most notorious rake, and her longtime crush. So that one worked out.

But then the (sort of) sequel to Nine Rules, Ten Ways to Be Adored, was a complete wash out. First of all, the premise wasn't nearly so lighthearted as Nine Rules'. The protag is the daughter of an aristocratic gambling addict who has lost all his money and portable property (the estate is entailed.) He abandoned his family, and her mother died, so she has been in charge of the crumbling estate since she was 17. (Her father also tried to gamble her away several times.) She turned the estate into a refuge for abused women of all classes, but now that her father has died and her 10-year-old brother is the Earl, things have come to a head. They need money and a Duke's sister has just shown up at their door, pregnant.

All of this is a great premise, but it starts to fall to shit immediately when it becomes clear that the author doesn't believe her protagonist can succeed without being protected and guided by a man. So much for feminism! I'm not going to get into detail on this one, because it's not worth my time, but I was outright offended by the book and would have thrown it across the room if it hadn't been in my Kindle. What was she thinking?

Okay, back to my busy life.

December 30, 2010

Reading Update: The Dust of 100 Dogs

A.S. King The Dust of 100 Dogs

Okay, first of all, great title!

Second of all, great concept! This is one of those rare books that is conceptually a complete original, owing to its mishmash of ideas, that all somehow work together. They barely work together, but if a miss is as good as a mile, a bare catch at the tip of your mitt is as good as a solid thunk in the pocket. It barely holds together, but it does, and that makes it a terrific read.

Emer Morrissey is a 17th century woman pirate captain attacking Spanish ships in the Caribbean. A survivor of Cromwell's Irish campaign, she was sold as a wife to an old man in Paris, ran away, and made her way to the new world and into her new role. It's complicated.

Just as she was about to escape it all with treasure and the love of her life, an old enemy gets to her. Everyone kills each other, but before she dies, she is cursed to live the life of 100 dogs. She does just that, spending three centuries in full awareness of who she is, yet living in the "consciousness" of one dog after another. Finally, the curse ends, and she is reborn, again with full memories of her old lives, as a suburban kid in seventies and eighties Pennsylvania.

But a suburban kid don't have it easy, either. Her father is a Vietnam vet with PTSD. Her mother, also Irish, survived abuse from nuns in an orphanage, and is functionally illiterate. And her older brother has just slipped from teenage rebellion into serious drug addiction. All she wants is to return to Jamaica and find her buried treasure, but that doesn't turn out to be that easy, either.

Honestly, the book shouldn't really have the impact it does. It's silly, unrealistic. The parts of history the author doesn't seem to know are rendered foggily in the book. The amount of rape and torture a beautiful and unprotected teenaged girl would suffer in the situations she finds herself in would probably defy description, yet she doesn't suffer them. And she's somehow a superhero when it comes to killing, with no training whatsoever. Also? The dogs thing? Very underplayed, often completely forgotten. Doesn't play a very big part in moving the plot forward.

Like I said, it barely holds together, but it does hold together, and is one of the most energetic, fun and interesting reads I've had this year. I don't recommend it for YA, necessarily. It's a bit gruesome. But I do recommend it.

November 20, 2010

Reading Update: Fun Genre Binge

I haven't updated in a while, and it's mainly because I didn't have a whole lot to say about these books because I was reading them in the spirit of junk food or comfort food. I hooked up (from Shinn's Troubled Waters) with the Wrede books through Amazon's recommendations (yes, I did.) Same with Elliott. Then someone at Borderlands recommended Carrigan and I went forward from there. The next thing I knew, the new McKinley was out, and I had to read that, and then I discovered that Marta Acosta had released the last of the Casa Dracula books and I had to read that.

It was a binge.

So now, before I go back to the growing stack of books I'm supposed to be reviewing, I'm going to sort out my feelings about each of these (or at least, my thinkings) in five sentences or less. Wanna hear it? Here it go:

  • Patricia Wrede Mairelon the Magician: A teenaged street urchiness dressed as a boy tries to steal from a performing magician and finds that he's real, and powerful, and rich. She becomes his apprentice and travels with him and his servant, trying to prove that he didn't commit a crime he is accused of. Fun, but dragged a bit in the middle and there was too much going here, and then going there, and then coming back to here, and then going back there. Later we're tipped off to the fact that the novel is intended as a tribute to 19th century stage farces, but who wants to read those?
  • Patricia Wrede The Magician's Ward: Sequel to the preceding. The young woman apprentice magician apparently gets a class pass because wizards transcend class, so she's introduced to high society as her master's ward. There's a mystery to solve, which involves her going back to the underground economy she used to serve, and of course her master falls in love with her. Also fun, but also too beholden to uninteresting, early, and awkward forms of farce. And why do consummating kisses always have to be performed in front of the entire cast, never in private?
  • Kate Elliott Cold Magic: Definitely the best of this bunch and the start of a promising series. A young woman living with her aunt and uncle and cousins in an alternate steam-punky England, is given away into an unbreakable magical marriage -- as the oldest female in her family -- to a stranger, a "cold magician," in accordance with some old family agreement she never knew about. She discovers that SPOILER she's not actually a member of her family, at least not by blood, and that her aunt and uncle knowingly used her as a decoy to save her beloved cousin, who was the real target of the marriage agreement. Now her husband's family wants her dead, so that they can get their hands on her prescient cousin, and she's busy herself trying to figure out where she came from, what the truth of her family is, and how she feels about her new husband. Can't wait for the next one!
  • Gail Carrigan Soulless
    Gail Carrigan Shameless
    Gail Carrigan Blameless: I'll just do these three together: A "preternatural" Englishwoman, i.e. a person whose touch takes away vampires' and werewolves' supernatural powers, helps England's government ministry on supernaturals solve mysteries. The head of this agency, a werewolf, ends up SPOILER marrying her, and their relationship forms a central issue in the series. From Book 2 on, the author tries to make a virtue out of a series of unintentional malapropisms and misuses of language she committed in the first book by making one of her characters a malaprop; but it doesn't work: she has no gift for language and that's a HUGE problem in this book. I also didn't like the horribly anachronistic slang and attitudes (yes, I KNOW this is an alternate timeline, but the author doesn't seem to understand Victorian attitudes at all, although she tries to use them.) Despite these crippling flaws, the books are well structured and terrifically fun and I'm going to keep reading.
  • Robin McKinley Pegasus: I've mentioned before how annoying I find it when the first book of a series can't find a good place to stop. Each book has to have its own arc, people! Even Lord of the Rings did! A girl and her pegasus try to prove that the intelligent pegasi are just as important as humans, but the lesson is somewhat muted by the fact that the pegasus lets the girl ride him and basically brings his entire race of people to heel to serve her needs. Nothing by McKinley can truly be bad, and I'm anxious to find out how this one turns out, but probably not anxious enough to read this book again before the next one comes out, to remind myself of what actually happened.
  • Marta Acosta Haunted Honeymoon: The fourth and, sadly, the last book in the Casa Dracula series about a voluptuous, wild-child Latina writer who gets half-turned into a vampire by the man of her dreams. In this episode, she has to choose, finally, between the straight-arrow, righteous vamp who turned her, and the slightly scary, mysterious, but hella sexy vamp she's been doing on the side. Although a hundred percent chicklit -- down to detailed descriptions of every outfit she wears, every meal she eats, and every fuck she sexes -- the series doesn't skimp on fundamental character development for her protagonist. It's not terribly serious, but it is both fun and satisfying, and I'm sad to see Milagro go.

October 31, 2010

Why Isn't College Dramatic?

During the summer TV slump, I watched all three seasons of Veronica Mars again. Yes, the first season was great, the second was good, and the third was heeeeeeinous. Still. What puzzled me was why the third season was so bad. I mean there's the fact that they moved to a different network, and that they were forced to cut the stories shorter, so there was no season-long arc. The shorter stories turned the show's premise into schlock: high-concept detective TV. Like Hart to Hart.

But what was really the problem with season three was that the show suddenly focused on (young) adult female sexuality, and it totally went to pieces. (SPOILERS FOLLOW.) In the first two seasons, Veronica was a nerd male fantasy: hot, smart, smart-ass, ass-kickin', and not at all scary with the sexual confidence 'n' stuff. She was a raped virgin. It was okay for white-hat-wearin' girls on this show to be virgins, or at least not sexually active.

But when she gets to college, it would look weird (i.e. non-normative) for her (and everybody else) to not be sexually active. And that's where the fantasy falls apart. Because for a hot chick who's that kickass to be sexually active, she has to be great in bed, too. And then she's suddenly beyond the nerd-boy's reach, not to mention scary. It's a dilemma, because for her to not be good in bed would kill the fantasy as well.

So suddenly the show has all of these weird sexual politics in it. The first story is about a serial campus rapist who shaves his victims' heads, just to make the power dynamic of a rape more visual. (Of course, it was completely ridiculous, b/c instead of actually shaving the actors' heads, they made them wear totally fake-looking fuzz-head wigs.) It's as if (showrunner) Rob Thomas had to balance out Veronica's suddenly active sexuality with a classic punishment for female sexuality.

Then he introduces what is apparently the only on-campus feminist group (at a private college? in California?) protesting the rapes (as if women who weren't outspoken feminists wouldn't be protesting serial rapes too: welcome to the 21st century you creep) who are a bunch of lying, cheating, conniving -- not to mention humorless -- bitches. He actually opposes da feminists to the lampoonists, two nerdy/misogynist guys who write a bad humor mag. As if the third wave of the most successful social justice movement of the last century -- which represents half of humanity, by the way -- was as trifling as a misogynist college humor mag. The "feminists" actually fake one of the rapes to make a point, an incredibly irresponsible thing to do in fiction in a culture that still blames rape victims and tries to scare them away from the very organizations that are there to help them. Gee, Rob, threatened much?

The second long story is a completely noirish story about the murder of a wealthy college dean, and the affair his young, beautiful wife is having with the hot, young professor. The wife isn't even an attempt at realism. Her hair is done forties-style, she dresses forties-style, and she has no personality, besides breathiness and lipstick. We, of course, never get to see her even kissing the hot young prof, although we do get to see him naked in a hotel room with her. (Why do we only get to see men in states of undress in this show? Could it be a fear of female sexuality?) And, of course, the hot-to-trot young wife is a femme fatale: she turns out to be the one who killed her husband and set up her lover to take the fall.

There's another story about a nerdy college boy whose friends hire a prostitute to take his virginity. He falls in love with her and hires Veronica to track her down, but then gets turned off to her when he realizes that her being a stripper and a prostitute isn't just an abstract concept: men are going to remember her and treat her accordingly. The show seems to think his hypocrisy is only natural, and rewards him for dumping his prosty girlfriend by giving him Veronica's best friend as a new girlfriend.

The problem here is clear: the male creator of the show didn't (doesn't?) understand adult female sexuality, and college is -- for people who go to college -- often or usually the place where sexuality blossoms and becomes adult. To write/create effective, realistic stories about girls becoming sexually active women, you have to understand how this happens.

Rape, usually date rape, is far too often a part of this. But the weird roofie-then-shave-head rape of Veronica Mars is most definitely not the usual way campus date rape happens. (Rob Thomas loves the roofie, by the way -- Veronica was roofied and raped in the first episode of the entire series. But far more often, the intoxicant of choice is simple booze.) And even -- or especially -- when rape doesn't happen, consensual sex in college is a very complicated mishmash of negotiation, persuasion, emotional blackmail, self-consciousness, wish-fulfillment, awkwardness, weird body issues, desperation, and, always always, desire. And that's just the women.

Because the cameras cut away the moment the bodies start getting horizontal, the real substance of a sexual liaison between very young adults is also cut away. There's a weird commitment, in this and all other shows, to making all consensual sex satisfying for both parties. (The first time in the series that we see Veronica in the afterglow, she's complimenting her 18-year-old boyfriend Logan on his sexual prowess by saying he could monetize it. That's not problematic at all.) Thus the weird, exciting, awkward, embarrassing, and above all, loooong sexual learning curve we go through throughout our twenties is compressed into a single encounter, and a whole new generation of late teens is subjected to a sexual inferiority complex.

Nobody ever shows a sexual encounter that is just as awkward and unpleasant as it is exciting and pleasurable. Nobody ever shows the young woman's sexual arc getting cut off before climax again and again as she (very slowly) learns to articulate her desires, and her young man partner learns (very slowly) to satisfy her. Instead of a multi-episode story arc in which Veronica complains embarrassedly and irritatedly to Mac that she's not getting off, and she and Mac puzzle over what they want and how to get their boyfriends to do it, instead we get super hot single girls being roofied, raped, and shaved, while Veronica looks unsympathetic and has sweaty orgiastic rock in a penthouse suite with a mysteriously game 18-year-old.

I remember the spring before I graduated, I and my equally 22-year-old friend took a road trip to San Diego to stick our toes in the ocean. We met two boys on the beach, 18 and 16, the elder of whom was trying to school the younger in picking up girls. We had the usual "how old are you?" discussion, which, at 22, was already becoming not so usual anymore. The boy told us "I'm 18, and I fuck like an 18-year-old, too!" My friend and I laughed and tried to convince him that wasn't a good thing. But beneath our overeager superiority and condescension, there was a very immediate realism informed by the four years of college we'd just been through, and the constant sexual disappointment we'd both experienced, plus our fairly recent awakening to the fact that good sex took a lot of work from both parties.

The highschooler was a veteran of sudden gropes and makeout sessions at parties. He hadn't yet gone through the process we'd gone through, which complicated sex and made it much more interesting, but also more confusing. It was an interesting moment, in retrospect, and meant much more than we thought it did at the time.

*****

I could go on, but I think I've made my point about Veronica Mars (which also applies to Buffy): kickass, hot, young, girl-things aren't necessarily evidence of feminism in their male creators.

But all this got me to thinking about why it is that there aren't any compelling dramas about college life. College always ends up being a joke in popular culture. This came up for me a few years ago when I was a devotee of Yahoo! Answers (where people ask questions and anyone can try to answer them. I was there mainly for the book recommendations.) Someone asked for recommendations of novels about college life, and wondered why this didn't seem to be a genre, in the way that YA high school novels were. People had a hard time coming up with titles (as did I.) The only one that anyone could think of was The Secret History. (I also thought of Brideshead Revisited but I don't really consider that a college novel, since the college part was just a prelude to the midlife crisis part.)

I think part of it is that, similar to Rob Thomas and female sexuality in Veronica Mars, people see and understand the difference between adolescence and adulthood, but don't seem to be aware of, or able to articulate, the process of moving from one to the other. Of course, for the half of the U.S. population that doesn't go to college, the transition between high school graduate and working adult is technically immediate. There's no discrete period of years or distinct set experience that is considered the coming of age moment. That's a large part of why college is considered so important: it's a distinct coming-of-age process that set off from the rest of the world -- age segregated -- and that is opaque to anyone who's not in it.

This opacity is bizarre to me. Half of us go through it. Why is it so hard for us to understand what happened? My boss of four years has a daughter who was fifteen when I started working for her and who was nineteen and coming out of her first year of college when I stopped working for her. I remember the girl being very shy and self-conscious and unable to talk to grownups like me in high school. Then she disappeared for nine months and came back from her first year of college smart, confident, firm, and able to look me in the eye, shake my hand, and ask me adult questions about how I was and what I was doing. The transformation was dramatic.

I  remember my freshman year myself. A lot happened, and I came back physically as well as emotionally different. But if I tried right now to narrate the incidents and trends that led me to dress differently, stand up straight, and represent myself with confidence to hundreds of strangers (I canvassed for a PIRG that summer) it would sound trifling and inconsequential. (There was a couple I befriended with a Doberman puppy. There were desperate makeout sessions with a guy friend I wasn't attracted to in a baseball dugout. There was a high-school-best-friend breakup scene long distance on the phone. There were mosh pits and vomit and second-hand clothing stores. There were various physical and emotional transformations happening throughout my family that I was leaving behind. There were certain dreams and desires collapsing, and other ones aborning. Need I go on?)

Why is it that everything that happens in college seems humorous or unimportant, like first world problems? Even when you're talking about the kids who have to work full time during school, or who have to take care of ailing parents, or of their own kids, or deal with illness or disability or abusive relationships, etc. etc. Even then, while the problems aren't inconsequential, somehow they don't seem as serious in narrative as the same problems in teenagerhood or in adulthood.

Maybe it's that the coming of age that happens in college is always triumphal (unless it culminates in someone dropping out.) Graduating from college, in our society, is in effect sealing your membership in the educated classes. Even if you work at McDonald's for the rest of your life, you'll never be less than middle class (whatever that means these days.) And you don't have to work at McDonald's for the rest of your life. This is always viewed as an accomplishment, meritorious, a permanent safe passage.

There's also the fact that college life is protected. High schoolers are protected as well, but they're a part of "real life," being part of families of people "out in the real world" dealing with problems in all classes, races, sectors, neighborhoods. Teens are dramatically transforming people half in and half out of childhood, but part of the totality of society. College, however, even city colleges and community colleges in urban campuses, are still physically and psychologically set off from the rest of the world.

This awareness of the special protectedness of college life and the privilege it confers is probably an enormous part of why, in this supremely class-conscious society, we don't take college drama very seriously. Especially not the people who go through it. There's some sort of merit in acknowledging privilege not by straightforwardly acknowledging it, but by tearing oneself or one's own peers down for being privileged.

Hm.

I think what I just said above is true, but it doesn't feel like the whole story. Any ideas? Why isn't college fictionally dramatic?

October 30, 2010

Wimmin Leaders in TVland

Ego-googling, I came across this post by Courtney Stoker on Geek Feminism, about why so-called feminist geeks hate women characters on tv.

This tendency to dislike female character reminds me of another ”being one of the guys” strategy: I often meet women who tell me proudly, “I just don’t get along with women.* All of my best friends have been guys.” These women also often think that this fact actually makes them progressive (because nothing’s more radical than failing to create female-centric relationships!). And most of the women I’ve known who say this are geeks. It’s actually one of the reasons it took so long for me to become friends with geeks, because “I don’t get along with women” is dealbreaker for me.

Liz Henry pointed to my post on Voyager in comments and "Burn" responded that:

I watch a lot of crime/procedural shows and there’s frequently a similar dynamic going on with the women bosses. ... A brilliant but non-conformist and risk-taking team leader, some team members, and then the big boss, who represents the government/police/military/whatever hierarchy. Team Leader takes risks, team members are also frequently risk-takers, and the Big Boss warns them not to push the boundaries, but of course the Team Leader goes against orders, and is pretty much always correct in the end. Recently, I’ve seen a lot of women cast as the Big Boss/representative of the Bureaucracy.  Since the narrative sets up the maverick Team Leader as a hero, and the Team Leader is almost always male, it sets up the dynamic of the audience sympathizing with the team rather than the bureaucracy, which places more women (usually middle-aged) into this almost-guaranteed-to-be-unlikeable role of the fun-killer.

I've actually responded viscerally to this without noticing it consciously before, so I'm glad Burn pointed it out. This may be part of the reason I don't enjoy most police procedurals. But I have been watching some recent woman-centered procedurals and they, more than sf shows, have been pioneering strong, interesting, middle-aged women leads.

I'm thinking about Saving Grace (which just ended its run recently,) The Closer, and In Plain Sight. All three of these shows posit strong, troubled, often obnoxious women cops (in In Plain Sight she's a U.S. Marshal) who are advanced enough in their field to work independently or be team leaders, without being the "big boss." All of them are unconventional risk-takers, all have alienated the establishment in their field and gotten themselves into trouble, and all have found a place where they can be accepted by finding male allies -- both superiors and equals -- partly through their sexual appeal, and partly by finding men who are as unconventional and troubled as themselves.

All three are also very strongly emotional, and are impelled by their empathy with the victims they work with. However, they all distort their emotional responses, subsuming their emotions in their work, acting out in small tics and rituals (in The Closer it's her compulsive sweets-eating,) taking their troubles out on their (unrealistically) understanding lovers, and only showing their vulnerability at special moments, often only to crime victims. All of them are dealing with serious histories with male authority figures: father abandonment, priest sexual abuse, a series of bad relationships.

I love all of these characters, and even compared Grace in Saving Grace to Starbuck in the new Battlestar Galactica, and called it a new archetype, the "Starbuck". I think Mary from In Plain Sight might be a "Starbuck" too, but there are arguments against it. For one, she and her younger sister and her mother, all three share the damage, so elements of the Starbuck archetype are divided among the three of them. Mary doesn't really have Starbuck's (or Grace Hanadarko's) charm, but her mother and sister do have it, without having the strength or kickassness. I don't think Brenda Leigh Johnson is a Starbuck at all, either. She might be more interesting, since she uses "feminine weakness" to compromise others.

I'm a character addict, in television and written fiction. I can enjoy a fiction with a good story and flat characters, but it doesn't stick with me. What makes something strong and abiding for me in fiction is strong characters. And I think what's really important about the way that women are portrayed in these shows isn't that the women are leads, or that they're strong and capable and kickass. It's rather that they're very particular characters, very individual and flawed and interesting.

Creating a new archetype isn't the same as  creating a new stereotype. Archetypes are more about place-holding in our imagination. They tell us that the individual we're seeing isn't anomaly, but rather is one individual among many in a similar situation, who has similar responses to that situation. Drawing a character from an archetype, or creating a new archetype, doesn't mean that your characters will become flat. Only if you flatten the character yourself will it become a stereotype. And what's happening with this new type of approaching-middle-age or middle-aged independent woman is that the shows are using them as maquettes to build very individual characters upon. Let's hope it lasts.

...

One more quick note: I think it's important to note that all three are blonde (as was Starbuck) and all bottle-blondes (including Starbuck.) There's something basic here about American beauty standards: I think presenting a non-blonde female lead in itself is fighting a small fight, and offering a sole female lead in a woman-centered fiction is probably enough fight for one show. I think the female leads have to be blonde. Look at the other female leads in woman-centered shows: Meredith Grey, Nurse Jackie, Hellcats, Secret Diary of a Call Girl, United States of Tara, the new one The Big C, etc. I think there are a few with brunettes, like Weeds, but not many. The ones that aren't (Cougartown, 30 Rock) are mainly comedies.

It's particularly interesting, about the bottle-blonde, because at least one of these isn't entirely white: Grace Hanadarko of Saving Grace is part ... you guessed it ... American Indian, although it's Choctaw (or Caddo?) in her case, not Cherokee. I haven't quite decided what to make of that yet; I'm trying to hold back sour commentary on the white American desire for mystical Indian ancestors to justify their existence here and wipe them clean of the racial sin of racism. But I ain't gonna go there.

October 15, 2010

Reading Update: Future Feminists of America

Suzy McKee Charnas The Conqueror's Daughter

So I finally finished the Holdfast Chronicles, with Charnas' fourth novel in the series, The Conqueror's Daughter. In this installment, Sorrel, conqueror Alldera's daughter from her rape by either Eykar Bek or Servan d'Layo, is all grown up and still dissatisfied with her perceived abandonment by her blood mother. (Alldera had, of course, in the previous novel, taken all the formerly enslaved free fems and returned to Holdfast, conquering the place and enslaving all the men.) Of course Sorrel's favorite sharemother, Sheel, has also taken off to see what life is like in Holdfast, and stayed.

Sheel much to the anger of the free fems, had sent a pregnant Newfree back to the Riding women of the plains, intending the unborn child to be raised on the plains like Sorrel was. Instead, the child turns out to be a boy, who is rejected by the women, and then rejected by his age cohort as well. Sorrel, feeling a kinship with him, takes over his care and becomes his mother and, fearing for his life as he grows older, takes him back to Holdfast looking for a better life for him. She's also motivated by a desire to see her two mothers again, to resolve her issues, and, of course, by the fact that she can't clone herself the way the Riding Women can.

The book is both satisfying and unsatisfying. Satisfying because Charnas continues to complicate the situation she developed in the first three books, breaking all the certainties the characters so confidently professed in earlier periods, and creating a rich sense of reality in this world. Unsatisfying because a novel -- a fiction -- can only take so much complexity, before it devolves into the chaos of actual reality. Novels aren't supposed to reflect real reality. Novels are a tool to introduce a kind of order to life so that we can understand it. Narrative is an ordering device. If reality is ultimately chaotic and meaningless, our desire and purpose in life as human beings is to wrest order and meaning from it. That's why we write -- and read -- novels.

So novels have to create an illusion of a certain amount of life's chaos and randomness, as well as an illusion of the patterns and flow of life, to convince us that we are looking at a reasonable facsimile of reality. If there's no reality in the fiction, then the fiction has nothing to say about reality.

But this "realism" can go too far. It can cause the novel to lose cohesion and, more importantly, to lose meaning, and then the purpose of the novel is lost. Charnas succumbs to the temptation to mirror the reality of a small community of a few hundred, where everyone knows everyone, and everyone has an important role and voice. She has, simply, too many important and active characters in the novel to keep track of them. The stream forward of the novel isn't strong enough; the novel's energy becomes too dispersed among too many points of view and too many active figures. I realize that this is how things actually work in real life; and Charnas has expressed her disdain for the simplifying action of storytelling very clearly in the deceitful and manipulative character of the storyteller Daya. But it doesn't work in a story; stories have to simplify to have any power. And you can see that principle at work in her previous three novels, all of which had many fewer active characters than The Conqueror's Daughter.

But she does give us a relatively satisfying -- if a bit unrealistic -- climax, and a very satisfying what-happened-to-them roundup of all the major characters. And she had the smarts -- or the talent, Delany says that writers underestimate their talent and overestimate their intelligence -- to make the clone-y Riding Women literally ride off to the West and into legend, in favor of a new, and more just, female/male society.

This is a huge lesson to me, in da nobble, because I have a lot of characters. I've already started cutting out the medium-sized characters, combining supporting characters so that I don't have too many of them, and folding functions performed by supporting characters back into the main characters. The supporting characters need to fill out the world of people, add richness, and perform certain actions that move the story along. But if there are too many of them, they start to detract from all of this. And I'm learning that it's important to lay distinctly different emphasis on main, secondary, and background characters: not to skimp on characterization for lesser characters, but simply to give them less prominence, and less to do, so the reader's head isn't too cluttered with figures to follow the most important movements.

So, all talk of satisfying/unsatisfying aside, this series, the writing and the project overall, is just several cuts above most of what I usually read in terms of writing, thought, intelligence, vision, and ambition. My gratitude goes to the author for attempting -- and mostly achieving -- something more and better, and actually great. And for teaching me more important lessons, both negative and positive.

September 30, 2010

Reading Update: The Mediator

I'm in the middle of thirty different books right now and got all wadded up and confused, so I tossed it all to the winds for a week in favor of Meg Cabot's sfnal series The Mediator.

I guess I should enumerate:

Meg Cabot The Mediator #1: Shadowland
Meg Cabot The Mediator #2: Ninth Key
Meg Cabot The Mediator #3: Reunion
Meg Cabot The Mediator #4: Darkest Hour
Meg Cabot The Mediator #5: Haunted
Meg Cabot The Mediator #6: Twilight

The series revolves around Suze, a "mediator" or someone who sees (and feels, and is able to touch, kiss, and beat up) ghosts. The mediator's job is to help the ghosts move on to their final destination by figuring out what unresolved issue is keeping them here and help them resolve it. Sometimes this involves smacking angry ghosts around, something that Suze really kind of enjoys doing.

The series begins when Suze arrives in Carmel, CA, where her news reporter mother has just married and moved in with a TV home-improvement guru and his three sons. Suze had been living in New York, alone with her mother ever since her father died when she was six. Her job as a mediator, necessitating damaging fights with ghosts and the occasional breaking and entering, had gotten her into a lot of trouble in NY, and she was considered weird by her school mates.

Carmel offers her a fresh start, especially since the principal of her exclusive Catholic school turns out to be a mediator too. The new family home, an 150-y-o boarding house, turns out to have its own ghost, who lives in her room: Hector "Jesse" de Silva, a very good-looking 20-year-old scion of a Mexican family, murdered in the house in its first year. Naturally, she falls for him. The series MILD SPOILER revolves around Suze and Jesse's relationship issues and how they try to resolve the problem of a cross-dimensional romance.

Okay, let's just be clear: these books are snacks, not meals (you can scarf one in a few hours), and empty calories at that. And yet ... I found them utterly addicting, and ripped right into the next one as soon as I'd finished the last. They're fun, funny, full of cute boys (there are almost no bad-looking boys in the series, which owes more to the fact that the narrator is a horny 16-year-old girl than anything else), and smoothly written and structured. None of the cute boys -- not even Jesse -- has any personality, and that's a big problem. In fact, all of the characters, except Suze, are two-dimensional at best. So the series will ultimately be forgettable.

But there are two main hooks for me here, which are a little surprising: Suze DOES have a personality, and it's not a Mary Sue personality. She's a bantam, horny and always looking for a fight, and definitely never the smartest person around. She's smart enough, but her nemesis Paul, who first appears in Book 4, is clearly smarter than she is and always one step ahead of her. In fact, so is Jesse, in his way. Jesse is book smarter, anyway, although he may be too "honorable" to see past her ... um ... wiles.

Suze is also a bit of an emotional klutz: clearly affected by her unpopularity in New York, she has trouble believing any boy would like her, and is completely unprepared for popularity or leadership in her school. And her emotions always get the best of her, in both senses. She can't seem to do the smart thing when her hackles are up, and ends up getting into a lot of trouble. I found this incredibly annoying and, incredibly, realistic. I remember being sixteen. It's not a smart look.

The other hook is Suze's physical aggression. It's not presented as a cool fetish -- nor is she a particularly gifted fighter. She's just very experienced at fighting, not afraid to fight, and convinced of the efficacy of fighting, given her experiences with fighting angry ghosts in the past. Cabot presents the fighting as what it is: neither good nor bad, just one way of dealing with things. And ironically, it's the male characters who oppose Suze's aggression, and try to convince her that there are better ways to resolve problems. I also love that she loses fights as often as she wins them, and in a realistic way: when fighting the ghost of a 19th century lady, she wins handily. But when fighting that lady's roughneck husband, she gets into trouble, as you'd imagine.

Anyhoo, this is a great anodyne for anyone suffering from too much Twilight. It's a precursor to both Meyer and Shymalan (the first three books were published one and two years after The Sixth Sense came out, but were presumably written before, since it's only in the fourth book that she makes humorous reference to it -- something I'm sure Cabot couldn't have resisted doing earlier if she'd had the opportunity.) And this is the anti-Twilight in a lot of ways: the new girl in town meets an undead boy (who watches her sleep!) and connects with him in a way that no one else can, and has to figure out a way to be with him. Only this klutzy girl is determined, kickass, and full of personality, and makes her own solutions rather than leaving it all up to her undead boy. Even the resolution to the "how to be with him" issue is the opposite of Twilight's, but I won't spoil it be saying what it is.

I would definitely hand this off to any mourning Twilight fans who need correction.

September 16, 2010

Reading Update: Hornets' Nests and Stupid Writers

Stieg Larsson The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest

Holy crap writer, Batman! This is the third of a series, but there is a limit to the number of characters you can stuff into a book before it explodes. By my count:

  • Two heroes: Salander and Blomkvist
  • Two main antagonists: Zalachenko and Niedermann
  • The gang at Millenium magazine (3 or 4 active characters)
  • The gang at SMP newspaper (4 or 5 active characters)
  • The Stockholm police team (5 active characters?)
  • The Goteborg police team (2 or 3 minor characters)
  • The Bad secret police team (4 or 5 active characters, two of whom die during the book's action)
  • The Good secret police team (2 active characters and 4 minor characters)
  • The private security firm team (4 active characters)
  • The hacker team (3 active characters so far)
  • The motorcycle gang (3 active characters, one of whom dies during the book's action)
  • The politicians (4 active characters: PM, Justice Minister, former PM, ambassador)
  • The prosecuting attorney
  • Salander's mentor Palmquist
  • Salander's doctor Jonasson
  • Salander's lawyer Giannini
  • Random Kurds with speaking parts and personal histories: 2
  • Berger's husband Beckmann (Is that his name?)
  • ... And some others ... mumble mumble ...

Did I MISS ANYONE? IT'S ENTIRELY POSSIBLE!

Also, correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't you NOT SUPPOSED TO TELL THE MYSTERY AT THE BEGINNING OF A MYSTERY BOOK? Isn't NOT KNOWING the mystery supposed to be what drives you through the whole process of discovery kinda thing?

ARGH. Argy.

Seriously, how do you write a flawed but seriously interesting book, with a fascinating and thrilling main character, and then in the succeeding two books systematically destroy everything that was great about the first book (and character)? How? Why? Argh!

September 13, 2010

Reading Update: Women's Wrongs by Women and Women's Wrongs by Men

Suzy McKee Charnas The Furies

Stieg Larsson The Girl Who Played with Fire

The Furies is the third in the Holdfast Chronicles. Pretty awesome. Written about twenty years after the first two, it adds even more complications to the already complicated political landscape of this all-female world. She's also set things up for the fourth and final book, in which men are presumably no longer to be treated like aliens. Can't wait.

The irony of the Stieg Larsson series, which is about a woman who becomes an avenging fury herself against men who exploit and abuse women, is that she's called a "girl" in the title, although she's 24 when the series starts. Argh! Larsson's rather profound limitations come out in spades in the second book. He's fascinated with the older man/younger woman structure, and we get to see three sets of these now. He also can't imagine a more subtle misogyny than men who always think of women as "cunts" and "whores." So the heroism on behalf of abused women rings false. We also never get to meet any of these degraded and abused women, except for Salander herself, who has always fought back. Annoying.

But the series is still addictive, and I'm about to embark on the third one.

September 07, 2010

Reading Update: Serial Killing Hello Kitty and (update) Feminist Swedish Mens

Angela S. Choi Hello Kitty Must Die

Stieg Larson The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Hello Kitty: Recommended. Can't say too much more since I'm reviewing it for Hyphen. But I asked for their lit editor to request this book, because I suspected it of being a genre-buster ... and I wasn't disappointed. Hie thee, Asian America, to a bookstore, to support the downfall of Azn Chicklit! Yee haw!

One note: she busts the genre, but doesn't bust some of the problematic tropes involved, such as the pushy Asian parents, the abusive Asian uncle, the thousands of Asian American men who are all losers, and the white men who rescue Asian girls from all of it. Argh.

Also, she stoleded the last image directly from Heathers and it didn't really fit that well. Well, actually, she stoleded the whole plot from Heathers ... kinda. Anyhoo.

Dragon Tattoo: an addictive read, although the writing was only competent. Interesting stuff in there: not white guilt but male guilt. I'm in the middle of the next book and Larson seems to be motivated entirely by misogyny ... I mean by his mission to combat misogyny, as if that were the only thing wrong in the world. All the mens are either older, enlightened, feminist mens who handle women perfectly and are always mentoring (and sometimes fucking) younger, brilliant women who look like children ... or they're older or younger vicious misogynists who think all women are cunts and whores. There's no in between, and no subtlety or nuance in his understanding of how sexism actually works in society. Sigh.

September 02, 2010

Reading Update: Japanese Concubines

Fumi Yoshinaga Ooku: The Inner Chambers Vol IV

Yeah, more of the good stuff. That is all.

August 28, 2010

Reading Update: More Feminist Skiffy and Readin' 'Bout Writin'

Suzy McKee Charnas Motherlines

John Gardner On Becoming a Novelist

Motherlines is the second in Charnas' Holdfast Chronicles, about a post-apocalyptic future in which men have blamed the apocalypse on women and keep them in abject slavery. The first was mostly about the men, and was partly written to underline how completely women were rubbed out of the culture (although it was very reminiscent of Ancient Greece and Rome.) The second is entirely about the women who live without men: the Mares and the Fems.

The Mares are horse-riding plains tribes, like American Indians, who were in the past genetically altered to clone themselves "naturally." The Fems are runaway slaves from Holdfast. The protagonist is Alldera, a runaway slave who arrives pregnant and is therefore taken in by the Mares, who want to start a new bloodline, or "motherline," with the child. She doesn't fit in and then wanders over to the Fems, where she finds a less brutal version of the master/slave dynamic of Holdfast being recreated.

Well done so far. I'm looking forward to reading the other two books in the series.

The novel is basically about how Alldera reconciles the two groups in her own mind and also literally.

The Gardner book is, for me right now, writing porn. I find this kind of reading about myself and the work I do or want to do, very wish-fulfilling and satisfying. I'm also learning stuff, but mostly about how to articulate these things for my teaching, not so much about how to write. But Gardner does have some interesting ideas about writer's block that could end up being useful.

August 26, 2010

Reading Update: Teen Pregnancy, Swords and Sorcery, and Feminist Sci-fi

Nick Hornby Slam

Robin McKinley The Blue Sword

Suzy McKee Charnas Walk to the End of the World

Slam: Meh. 15 y/o kid obsessed with Tony Hawk gets his girlfriend pregnant. TH whisks him forward into the future to see what will happen. Then it happens. Good understanding of the teenaged male mind. Not much of a story, though.

The Blue Sword: Just about pure wish fulfillment. Girl brought to a colonial outpost near the wild hill people in a secondary world, gets kidnapped by their king and trained to be one of his warriors. No one mistreats her, everyone reveres her. She turns out to have magic and learns everything incredibly easily. Then it turns out that she has hill people blood in her. Yawn. Did I mention that the hill people are like a combo of American Indian and Bedouin, with magic added? There's hardly any conflict, and when it finally rears its head, in the form of the bad Northern war-maker, she just pulls out her magic sword and brings an avalanche down on him. Fun, but I'll forget I ever read it in about a minute.

Walk to the End of the World: The first of the groundbreaking Holdfast Chronicles, about a post-apocalyptic world in which men have completely enslaved women to the point that they are constantly in danger of dying out. If you swallow this premise, which is the only implausible part of the series, but is also clearly a product of its time (1974 pub date,) then the series is kind of amazing. Her characterization and depiction of interpersonal politics is spot on. Of course, it keeps stumbling over the problem of all men, everywhere, believing that all women everywhere are evil and also stupid. Centuries of a Christian theology that held women to be the root of all sin didn't succeed in convincing everybody of either of these premises, so I'm not sure why it would work now. (Like I said, this one piece is a huge stumbling block.) But if you can suspend that disbelief, it's a great read. I'm halfway through the second one right now.

Now I'm off to the gym to sit on a bike and continue reading the second book. Yee haw.

June 25, 2010

Reading Update

Shailja Patel Migritude

A. Lee Martinez The Automatic Detective

Talking about Shailja's book would break two rules: reviewing a friend's book and reviewing a book I'm publicizing professionally. But I will mention that it's a book made from a performance made from spoken word poetry. And that I've seen the performance twice (and loved it!) And that I was surprised at how well the book read on paper. That is all.

The Automatic Detective is a lot of fun. I dragged out the reading of it by only reading it on the BART, otherwise I would've gotten through much sooner. But keeping it to a BART reader gave me something to look forward to on the BART. I even chose BART over driving the other day so I could spend my travel time with this book.

The novel revolves around the protagonist robot, Mack Megaton, who has been acknowledged as having the free will glitch in his programming that confers sentience, and who is four years away from completing his probation -- at the end of which time he'll become a fully recognized citizen. Mack requires probation because he's actually a killer robot created by an evil genius -- a killer robot who then refused to serve his purpose. There are worries, not least in Mack's own conscience, that Mack may break one day and start killing people.

Anyhoo, Mack is a bit emotionally distant from the world, but he does have a few friends, chief among them the wife and daughter of the family next door. The wife ties his tie every morning (he doesn't have the manual dexterity to do it yet.) One day, he surprises a thug in the act of terrorizing the family, and in the confusion, the prescient (mutant) daughter is able to slip him a note telling him to look for them. Then the family disappears and someone blows up Mack's apartment.

From this point on, we're in a classic noir, except for the cartoony sci-fi world ... and the fact that the femme fatale isn't fatale. It's, as I said, a lot of fun, and seamlessly pulled off. Loved it and highly recommend it as pure entertainment. No redeeming social value.

June 03, 2010

Reading Update

Fumi Yoshinaga Ooku: The Inner Chambers Vol I

Fumi Yoshinaga Ooku: The Inner Chambers Vol II

Fumi Yoshinaga Ooku: The Inner Chambers Vol III

Awesome! Totally awesome! I picked these up at Wiscon and tore right through them. A wonderful manga, that won the Tiptree award this year. It's an alternate history in which a plague sweeps 17th century Japan, killing off 4/5ths of the men. Women take over, including the shogunate, and the young shogun must set up a harem of men to protect the palace and ensure an heir. 

It's interesting, in that all the male characters in the series are either good or bad (so far,) but all the female characters are much more nuanced and complex.

Yeah, that's all I have to say about that. It's amazing. Read it!

April 28, 2010

Reading & Writing Update

So I'm working on a new story and I think a good way to get me to work more on it is to say that I'll read an excerpt from it at my reading on Friday. Yeah. That's it.

Also, I'm on a Robin McKinley binge. Just read:

Sunshine
Chalice
Spindle's End

Weird, reading three books at once, and in the same year as I read another book, all by the same author. You get to see the repetition of themes and structures, like her concern with elements and how magic draws from them (something I love too.) Or her interest in male/female partnerships between people whose personalities attract, but who have a built-in physical repulsion. (In one story this is a vampire/human thing and in another this is an elemental priest/human thing. It seems like a kind of metaphor for women being simultaneously attracted and repulsed by men, who are somehow inherently physically alien and physically dangerous, yet who provide a kind of complementary weight and access.)

She also seems to have a liking for the balanced male/female pairings. There's a lot of romance wish-fulfillment here, but at least it's a wish for equality.

She does have a tendency to let the plot fall apart at the end. Final confrontations are not her forte. Spindle's End and Sunshine especially have very messy climaxes. The one in Spindle's End went on forever and wandered back and forth and didn't declare clearly when it was over until it was, really, over. The one in Sunshine was just really unclear how it happened, and therefore not entirely plausible within its own world-rules. The climax in Chalice worked reasonably well, but -- and here's the problem will all three books, I think -- the part leading up to the climax was a lot of casting around for filler so that the pacing didn't go off right before the climax. This was especially bad in Sunshine. Frustrating.

I'm thinking back to Dragon Haven now and remembering that its climax was actually rather good: came slightly unexpectedly, and was a bit weird, yet satisfying. Fit in its world.

I've ordered two more from Paperback Swap and will have six McKinley books under my belt, at least, before the year is out. Bad climaxes notwithstanding, exactly what I want to read right now.

March 27, 2010

Reading Update and Kindle

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Yummy yummy deeeelicious fantasy! Intelligent without losing the wish fulfillment. So much more tasty than, say, Twilight, since you still get SPOILERS! the incredibly handsome, superpowered boyfriend who reads minds, but the Mary Sue is also superpowered and usually able to beat him, and the whole deal is that they each have to learn to rely on the other.

Also, very well-written, transparent, precise, flowing, no glitches or hitches. That's so hard to do!

Plus, the heroine is actually likable and not an asshole who breaks every girlfriend rule in the book!

Sign me up for the next Cashore book, in advance!

Also, so far this year I've read about 28 books in 12 weeks, which puts me at well over 2 books a week. My rate in the past few years (especially early in the year) has been a book a week. Of course, a lot of this is YA, which is usually a quicker read for me than adult fiction, but so has my reading in the past years been. I think the reason for this is simple: my Kindle.

I had no idea that this would happen, but having all my new reads in one place, in one easy-to-access, light to carry, easy to hold, and easy to read place, has eased my entry into each book considerably. I've noticed in recent years an increasingly tough surface tension around books for me, a resistance I have to overcome to "get through" and get into a book. The surface tension is much less around YA books, which is why I read so many of them: I'll choose them first. For some reason, reading the books on the Kindle has lessened the surface tension around all books considerably, and in multiple ways.

There's the tension you have to get through to start a book, the tension you have to get through to return to a book again and again if the book is written in a more fragmentary fashion, and the greater tension of reading a book you know you will find difficult, or requiring greater concentration than usual. The Kindle has eased all of these. I'm reading a book now which I've actually been reading slowly for a month. I don't have to go back to it regularly, and yet I do; for some reason it's much less threatening to pick up where I left off on the Kindle, and also less confusing.

I wonder if this is all psychology, all on a cognitive level, or some combination of the two. Be interesting to find out.

March 02, 2010

Reading Update

Finished Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series:

The Sea of Monsters
The Titan's Curse
The Battle of the Labyrinth
The Last Olympian

It was fun and addicting, but it wasn't as good as Harry Potter and I'm trying to figure out why.

I think part of is was that Harry Potter had the growing-into-teenagerhood-battle-of-the-sexes thing, but didn't have to contend with traditional archetypes. It's really hard to represent female empowerment when your two strongest battle goddesses are sworn virgins who get their power from their virginity. Also hard when your top three most powerful gods are, well, gods, not goddesses.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

Riordan did some interesting stuff here with making the potentially most powerful demigod -- the child of Zeus -- a girl. But then he also took her out of the running by having her swear eternal maidenhood, which means both eternal virginity AND eternal adolescence, argh. This could have been the vehicle for some interesting discussion about teens and decisionmaking about their sexuality, but it's glossed over in favor of a truly not okay dichotomy between slutty/manipulative/dumb/vain Aphrodite (and her children,) and cold/standoffish/superior/selfish/uncaring Artemis (and her followers.) Oh yeah, also: Hera is a vengeful hypocrite who only cares about appearances, although she's constrained to sexual fidelity to her husband, being the goddess of marriage; Demeter is just plain dumb, caring only about farming; Persephone is also dumb; Hestia, who kind of saves the day, is weak and "prefers" to appear as a little girl sitting by the fire, overlooked by everyone but -- literally -- keeping the home fires burning; and Athena, the wise one, turns out to be wrong about our hero, and also has children parthenogenically, through platonic love affairs with men.

Yep, there's not a single good, strong, triumphant female god in the bunch, although all the male gods end up coming through: Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Hermes, Dionysus ... well, maybe not Ares. And all the male gods are rampantly sexual -- in fact the main action of the series is caused by extracurricular fucking on the part of the three strongest male gods.

I DO however, think it's really interesting that the character chosen to play the part of Achilles in the series' retelling of The Iliad in the final book is a girl. Yep, that's right. Clarisse, daughter of Ares, argues with the Apollo children over who gets the spoils of a particular battle -- although the spoils are a flying chariot, not a pretty girl. When Apollo cabin wins, Clarisse refuses to fight against the Titans. Her Patroclus is another girl, actually, the head of the Aphrodite children. Although there's no overt homoerotic tinge to their relationship, it's the only relationship in the series that approaches (but never breaches) the Bechdel barrier.

And yeah, that's another issue: doesn't pass the Bechdel test. Although the hero of the Harry Potter series is a boy, there are plenty of moments in HP where girls talk to each other about magic or school or dresses or stuff (even girly stuff.) In fact, we see them off whispering to each other and talking and having a good time all the time. Not in Percy Jackson, though. The only Bechdel-safe relationship (mentioned above) is implied, not shown. Actually, it's not even implied; the girls bond over the death of one of their boyfriends. Argh.

I also thought that the series' utter failure to consider Western Civ as maybe, possibly, not the only important or humanity-changing Civ in hisotry was a big fail. And it's not like there weren't multiple opportunities to dig just a TINY bit deeper into the whole "Western Civilization will die in chaos and take you and your playstations with it!" thing. HP, on the other hand, took what it wanted from western witch/wizard tradition and build the rest anew. It wasn't beholden to ancient archetypes (although you might not know it from the Christ-like conclusion to the series) any more than it had to be. It didn't go running toward outdated archetypes with open arms.

"Open" is the word I'm looking for. Although PJ was just as cutesy/funny and well-structured and so forth as HP, there's a lack of openness in the narrative, a lack of feeling that anything could happen (even though, of course, in HP, not just ANYTHING could happen. But it sure felt that way.) It was stuck in thousand-year-old ideas.

February 16, 2010

Why Aren't Women and POC Submitting Their Work?

ETA 5/6/13: I'm re-reading this now because of a discussion I'm having with someone, and I'm realizing that some of the criticisms below in comments are more accurate than I could see at the time I wrote it. I wrote this post with the explicit intention of "validating" the perception that women/poc submissions "aren't as good" as white submissions as a rhetorical device. My intention was to validate that perception to draw the reader in, and then smack them over the head with the fact that too many terrific women/poc writers simply aren't submitting for the following reasons (etc.)

I'm realizing now that this was not a super-effective tactic. And I have to admit that I didn't think it through clearly. When I conceived of this piece, I had recently been fired from a paid gig at an online magazine that was all white (except for me) and mostly male. Although I got some legit-sounding excuses for being fired, I didn't think it was a coincidence that I was fired right after I intensified my campaign to diversify the artists and writers being covered in the magazine. These things are hard to prove, though. The editor in question had told me that: a) they didn't get enough submissions from writers-oc and b) the ones they got weren't good enough. I had also been trying to diversify another (paid) online magazine that some friends were involved with and that I read but didn't contribute to. They told me the same thing: not enough submissions, not good enough. The way the editors I knew said this reminded me of how editors in this online fight had been saying that they don't get enough woc subs, and I noticed (or thought I noticed) that there was an unspoken implication that the subs they did get weren't good enough.

The other thing was that I thought it might well be true that the editors I had talked to weren't getting good submissions from woc because the good woc weren't submitting to them. I had had that experience as an editor of a poc magazine -- one of not getting enough good submissions even though I was seeing terrific writers in the community all the time. That was something that no one would say in public, and I was struck with the idea of writing a piece that did say it, and then turned it around on its ear. And then I simply wrote it, without thinking of how off-putting or ultimately inaccurate that would be. Bait-and-switch is fundamentally dishonest, and even if my intention was always honesty, honest dishonesty is ... uh ... problematic? I should have been more straightforward, is what I'm saying.

Also, a writer below took me to task for saying that most women or poc "fail" to make the leap to mainstream mags. My intention was always to use the word "fail" to mean "didn't do," and my critic contended that my use of "fail" expressed actual failure in the not doing. I.e.: it sounded like I was criticizing women/poc for not making that leap, and calling them failures. Because this was never my intention, I dismissed the criticism at the time. In re-reading, I'm realizing that she was completely right. This is exactly how that sentence, and its contextualizing language, reads. I should have worded that much more carefully. My critic, understandably, didn't believe me when I wrote back that an accusation of "failure" wasn't my intention with that wording. All I can say about that is that when I wrote this post, I had just recently made a completely conscious decision to publish my first book with a diversity-focused feminist small press, and deliberately did not submit it anywhere else. I did NOT consider this "not doing" a "failure."

Now, on to the original post:

***

I'm about to post something more on the general topic area of literary diversity, but I realized that I've never actually written a more foundational post that I've been meaning to write for a couple of years now.

Basically, this is about the totally valid and justified complaints of white editors that writers of color and women aren't submitting enough work to them. This is absolutely true (as far as it goes.) If you teach (as I do) writing in community orgs, 90-99% of your students will be women and poc. If you've studied creative writing in universities, even or especially at the MFA level (as I have), you'll know that about 60-75% of students are women. But start reading slush for a major publisher or journal and you'll notice a sudden, steep drop in the percentages of women, and an even steeper drop in the percentages of poc submitting work. And look at what is actually published and you'll see the drop is even steeper: mostly men, mostly white.

ETA: Some of Those who read slush know will tell you (although it's not cool to talk about in these terms ETA: as evidenced by the heated comments below. Please note, this is my experience and that of many folks I've talked to or read stuff from, not a universal experience.) that the submissions from women and poc are often disproportionately sucky, which is sometimes why even the proportions of women and poc who submit aren't reflected in the proportions of women and poc actually published. (Sometimes. There's usually also a factor of white male editors not quite getting the culture or language of marginalized writers, so they don't fully appreciate the nuances of the work. But that's another discussion.) So when a white male editor says, "We only had one woman and one poc in the anthology because we were going for the best work," that could be true, or true-ish.

(ETA: with reference to comments below, let me just put in here that your percentages may vary. We're still working with more women (and a larger percentage of poc) attending writing classes, but more men and white writers actually submitting work. How radical your discrepancy is, like I said, varies, but the discrepancy exists.)

And yet, I know from teaching and learning in community and academic settings that there are metric tons of good poc and women writers out there, just waiting to be plucked from the vine.

What gives?

For someone like me, and many of you, who are in on every step in the long, slow process of literary accomplishment (looks like this: community writing classes, MFA courses, community readings, ethnic magazines, indy publishers, mainstream lit magazines, major publishers -- I am or have been involved in all of these except the last two) it's very easy to see that there's a huge chasm at one step in this process. And that chasm comes between writers developing their craft in the bosom of their communities, and writers taking a leap away from their local identity communities into the ether of the mainstream -- basically at the point where writers have to take a deep breath and submit their work to mainstream editors who don't know them and aren't familiar with the communities they come from.

Here's the problem:

MOST WOMEN AND POC WRITERS FAIL TO MAKE THAT LEAP.

Yeah, that's right: most of them. You know all the "ethnic" and women midlist writers at majors who will get dropped soon and move to indies because they get no attention? For every one of those, there are at least three who never bothered with the majors but stayed in indie and community publishing, and ten who never made the leap to publishers at all. Yes, it's true. It's not that most women and poc writers fail to become good enough to make that leap. It's that, of those that reach a point where they CAN make the leap, most either don't recognize that they've reached that point, or, for other reasons they never manage to make the leap.

I have a friend near my age who was taking community writing classes with me, started an MFA the year after I did, and has been writing just as long. When this friend finally got a story published, it was in an ethnic mag. Last time I checked, my friend still hadn't submitted any work to mainstream journals.

Why not? What are those reasons? Enlightened editors want to know. Well, I have some ideas, although I can't speak for all women/poc writers who don't make the leap (please feel free to add ideas in the comments.) These reasons are in order of frequency (in my opinion):

  • Many women/poc writers don't hang out in mainstream literary circles locally or online so they don't know what to expect or what's expected of them in this scene. They don't understand how to "break in" to mainstream markets, so they stick to the literary scene they know how to work.
  • They don't know about your publishing house/journal (see directly above).
  • They know about your publishing house or journal but don't think you take work from women/"ethnic" writers. (This impression usually comes from the actual dearth of women/poc writers in your mag or on your list.)
  • They know you'll technically read work from women/ethnic writers, but don't believe their work will be taken seriously or given a fair reading.
  • They know you'll read their work with an earnest intention of fair play, but don't believe you're equipped to understand it.
  • Those who do submit work often don't submit their best work, because they fear their best work will be considered "too ethnic" or "chicklit," so they submit more standard "literary" work that their hearts weren't really in.
  • They don't think that anyone like them READS your books or your magazine, and they want to reach their own audience.
  • They have a political agenda around their work and have decided that that agenda is best served by keeping their work within their communities.
  • ETA: Ide Cyan and Minal Hajratwala added another good point in the comments. As Minal put it: "A serious economic/class differential that means that many women of color who write are barely able to eke out the hours to write, let alone any extra hours to venture into a whole new & unwelcoming literary 'scene,' to network, attend conferences/ workshops, research publications, submit work, blog or read blogs, deal with rejection (in the face of a host of other societal rejections)... Some of the students in my community-based classes are writing mainly because it helps them survive, and the idea of publication is not a priority."

Most of those good writers who don't submit do it for the first two reasons. I know, it's hard for editors and publishers to remember a time when they didn't know the rules and the landscape. Many editors and publishers grew up in culturally savvy families or communities, so they don't even know how they learned the rules and the landscape. But the folks who aren't submitting either don't know the rules, or don't think they're considered important enough to engage the rules. They either don't have a map to the landscape, or simply think that it's a closed, privately-owned parcel of land. And far too often they're right.

And most of them aren't necessarily even aware that they think this way. I can't tell you how many writers I've encouraged to submit their work who had never done it before because it simply never occurred to them. They never signed up for a writers list-serv. They don't read lit blogs that post opportunities on them. They don't know about Writers Market or the Poets & Writers database. They don't know that you can (and sort of have to) look the various markets up and note down their guidelines and simply submit work according to the guidelines. (There's a big component in here of internalized racism, where the writer has been absorbing messages of her inferiority for her entire life, and is unwilling to risk being rejected on that basis, but that's another blog post.)

I have a good friend who has been writing for decades. My friend has a towering reputation in local and extended identity communities, is invited to read around 10 times a year in a variety of venues, has had work published in a number of anthologies, has edited an identity-based anthology published by an indy publisher, and has also been the editor of a literary journal. This friend had an offer of a book on the table from an indy before the economy went to shit and the publisher had to taper off publications for a while. This friend has never made an unsolicited submission. So when the indy publisher had to rescind the book offer, my friend didn't know what to do. When I suggested we get proactive and prepare a package of work to send out as an unsolicited submission, my friend was both surprised and relieved. And this is someone with a lot of publication and literary experience. This is someone even the most boneheaded white male publisher would be delighted to get a submission from.

So, the point of all of this is that editors have to go out and find good writers of color and women writers just like they have to go out and find good white male writers. The obvious first place to start is independent magazines and publishers, but editors will need to go deeper than that. (I won't go into it again here.) And the big issue is not just knowing where to look, but knowing how to approach.

A number of small gestures can make a huge difference. Make the whole experience as painless and welcoming as possible. For example:

  • Make sure your submission guidelines are easy to find on your website. Don't hide them. Add language to your guidelines that specifically welcomes women and writers of color. Something like "We are especially interested in innovative work by women, writers of color, and writers from historically marginalized groups. We love to discover new writers!" Don't beat around the bush. Be plain.
  • When you go through your back issues/backlist for the big names to list on your website, be sure to put the names of women writers and poc front and center. A publisher/magazine that has a lot of recognizable "minority" names on its website is basically putting out the welcome mat for "minority" writers. This is a subtle language you must learn to speak.
  • When you send a call for submissions out on a list-serv or send it to a website for a "minority" group, be sure to personalize it and express your strong desire to get submissions. Sign it with your name. Say something like, "I really want to encourage you all to submit work. Our submissions pile isn't nearly as diverse as it needs to be, and as a result, our publications aren't as diverse as they need to be. You can help change that. Please take a chance on us and send us your best work!"
  • Write up a brief primer (maybe a paragraph) on how to make an effective submission (including maybe a little something about what to put, and what not to put, in a cover letter.) Include this in your call for submissions. Make your expectations plain, and don't give anyone any excuses not to submit.
  • Be sure to ask them to tell you in their cover letter where they heard about your magazine or publishing house, so you can track where the submissions are coming from; and ask them to include a brief bio that talks about their origins, so you can get a sense of where your writers are coming from. Encourage them to talk to you about who they are and what their process is, so you can understand it all better.
  • If you're rejecting a promising submission from someone who's obviously a writer of color or who says they're coming from a poc website or list-serv, be sure you personalize the rejection with at least some minimal feedback, and an encouragement to submit again. Yes, I know you don't have time, but it's part of an editor's job to cultivate promising writers, and if you want a healthy field of diverse writers in ten years, you have to plant now. This is assuming that you actually DO send rejection letters out. Many journals don't reject in a timely or consistent manner, and there's nothing more off-putting to someone who already thinks they're not going to get a fair shot, than being utterly ignored. Basically, acknowledgment is key, even when you're rejecting.

That's all fairly easy, surface stuff. But if editors and publishers really want to become more diverse and reflective of 21st Century reality, they're going to have to change the way their organizations approach the work itself. Changes like:

  • Having some non-white, non-WASPy names on your masthead or staff list. Yes, we do read these. Yes, we are turned off when we don't see any names like ours. Yes, I'm much more likely to send a story to a market with an editor of color or a woman editor first (although there are so few of these that I've learned not be picky.) And if a market's guidelines don't say anything about multiculturalism, but do say stuff about "no genre" and "high quality" (both euphemisms for New Yorker-style Carverism,) all the masthead names sound white, and all the author names on the website are or sound white, I'm probably not going to bother to submit to you at all.
  • Having a diverse editorial board or a diverse set of guest editors. Aside from the above issue, they'll make an effort to reach out to their communities if they understand that that's their job (no, you can't just tokenize an editor and watch her go. If your mag isn't diverse, she'll often just assume you only want white male writers and do her job that way.)
  • If you're successful in all this, your volume of submissions should increase. Go to ethnic and gender studies departments at your local universities and pick up an extra, slush-reading intern there. Put the intern's name on the masthead. Let your intern know that their expertise in ethnic/gender studies is needed and they should point out any boneheadedness in editorial decisions if they see it.
  • Having an editorial mission statement and a strategic or business plan whose language fundamentally reflects a deep commitment to diversity.
  • Being advocated for in the community by a diverse set of respected writers. (Yes, when one of us has been published by a market, we DO immediately go out and tell our peeps to submit there. When one of our respected leaders tells us this stuff, we particularly prick up our ears. And when an editor buttonholes one of us and says "How do I get [your folks] to submit to [my magazine/house]?" without sticking their feet in their mouths, we do go straight to Facebook and post a link.)
  • Having a "usual round" of in-person visits to open mics, reading series, classrooms, etc that are in diverse communities, so you're "touching" minority writers all the time.
  • When you request work from big name writers, hit up women writers and poc as often as you can. This is not to fill out your minority quota with big names, but rather to use the big names to entice emerging marginalized writers to submit to you.
  • Be constantly reading marginalized writers. Duh.
  • This is whole 'nother blog post, but start actively (and savvily) marketing your books/magazines to marginalized communities. It's a cycle: if they're reading it, they'll want to submit to it. If they're being published in it, they'll want to read it. Rinse, repeat.
Yeah, as I've said before, it's a lot of work. And you do have to change the way you do that work in the first place. But if you want actual diversity and not just lip service and real frustration, this is where you start.

February 15, 2010

My First Review!

Squeeeeeeeeeee!!!

January 26, 2010

Reading Update

Canyon Sam's Sky Train: Tibetan Women on the Edge of History, which I will review in the next issue of Hyphen.

Jane Yolen Wizard's Hall: a middle-grade Harry Potter lite, except that it preceded HP. Fun and cute.

November 10, 2009

Reports of Child Sex Abuse by Women Rising

This post on Broadsheet alerted me to a new study in the UK that shows reporting of child sex abuse has risen sharply, and with it the reports of women -- mostly mothers -- being the abusers.

Sex abuse claims directed at men still far outnumber those aimed at women. A 2007 United States Department of Justice report noted that females are responsible for less than 10% of sex crimes and less than 1% of all forcible rape arrests.  They also have a different modus operandi than male offenders -- including a higher likelihood of committing their crimes in caregiving situations and in concert with a male partner. But the uniqueness of female perpetrators can make it harder for victims, particularly boys, to come forward. The DOJ report noted “sexist beliefs that depict males as controlling all sexual encounters and females as passive and submissive recipients… Misperceptions exist about the ‘ability’ of women to sexually victimize males.” And the jokey cliche of a boy seduced an older woman muddles the seriousness of the crime.

This makes me prick up my ears because of that story I wrote a few years back (currently titled "Vacation") in which all the men disappear from the world and some women end up becoming sexually predatory with young boys. The story was inspired by the Mary Kay Letourneau case, in which a 30-something, white (blonde) schoolteacher and mother of four had an affair with her 13-year-old, Laotian student, and went to prison for seven years after she got pregnant with their second child, against a court order not to see him again. I wrote the story after reading that Letourneau had been released from prison and had immediately married her former student, who was at that point 22 years old.

The story isn't based on the Letourneau case, but is rather an attempt to explore in a more general way the kind of predatoriness that would cause a perfect Barbie-mom to go after a young boy who was in her care for much of the day (Letourneau was actually a grade school teacher, and the boy had been in her class when he was 11 and 12.) In this story I turned the tables, and actually had a rape?/not rape? scene in an alleyway. But the articles above seem to indicate that woman/boy sex abuse doesn't fit the stranger-danger stereotype any better than man/child abuse usually does (most of that happens within family or friendship circles.)

This gives me a lot to think about, like how my story works best where the public attitude is that women don't generally sexually abuse children. But this article has started to change my view of that. My tables-turning isn't quite so powerful in a world where a lot of women DO molest children. So I'm very disturbed by this on two levels. I might have to write another story, a different one, to get at whatever it is comes out of this.

By the way, I'm bound and determined to finish proofing the chapbook tonight, now that that grant is done. I hope the book, with "Vacation" in it, will be out in December.

September 15, 2009

Domestic Violence Is A Preexisting Condition

I often act outraged when I'm really just angry. But this is outrageous. Call your representative today and tell them to do something about it. Public Option Now!

August 27, 2009

Reading Update: Mammothfail Is A World-building Issue

I just read: Thirteenth Child by Patricia Wrede and the fourth Buffy Season 8 Omnibus.

Naturally, I ordered this Thirteenth Child from BookSwim (netflix for books, not sure I recommend it yet) as soon as Mammothfail broke. I'm not sure I recommend BookSwim yet because it took that long for those books to reach me. So I'm reading this very late, with regard to the brouhaha, and in fact had forgotten that the book was coming at all.

First of all: yes, Wrede is a good writer. The book was a fun and fluent read, with a decent plot, interesting magical rules, and very alive characters. This last is very rare. I've noticed that readers will often credit a flat-charactered book with good characterization if the book itself is good. But a book doesn't have to be character-driven to be good. There are other drivers.

The book is also distinctly feminist in outlook, but also in a very rare way: feminist historical fiction tends to invest its characters with anachronistic attitudes and skills. Thirteenth Child didn't make this mistake. Its female characters, although strongwilled and powerful people, never complained about having to stay home and do the mending while the boys got to go out and play. They expressed frustration over it, but didn't combat it on a theoretical level that would have been inappropriate for the nineteenth century. I really appreciated that. It made the expression of female power so much more interesting.

The one part that is problematic is, of course, in the world-building. Yes, race in SF is a world-building issue. It has to do with how you see your world, not with how your world really is. There are very few places in the US that are actually all white. But there are also very few places in the US where middle class whites can't get away with failing to perceive the actual diversity all around them. We think there are huge all-white pockets of the US because writers portray fictional USes as all white so often, that they must be drawing on some sort of reality. But they're not. They're drawing on their perception of reality, as are all us chickens.

Let me break this down a bit for myself as well. There are three types of white-protag books by white authors in SF: the type that has important characters of color, the type that doesn't have important characters of color, and the type that has no characters of color at all.

The white-protag, white-authored book that has no characters of color in it: we don't need to talk about those, I hope. They are what they are, and I don't read them anymore. Some of them are extremely well written, most not so much. All take place in an alternative world in which white privilege has won, irrevocably. I think they have become immoral to write, as do a lot of other people, but as long as there is a market for them, they will sell. But let me just underline, before we leave this subject: these books have fictional worlds that are utterly unrealistic, in both the sense of fictional mimesis, and in the sense of human truth. US-written SF comes from a country where all-white simply doesn't obtain outside of certain clubs and gated communities. Period.

PoC, especially activists, will tolerate the type that doesn't have important characters of color -- like Harry Potter -- as long as there is a clearly genuine good faith effort to reflect some sort of real-life diversity in the book. There's a lot of discussion, and there can be a lot of disgust over the second-class-citizenship of characters of color in these worlds, but it's clear that the author hasn't completely ignored the actual racial diversity of the situation they are depicting. In fact, there's an honesty to this sort of writing: if you're white in America and middle class or higher, the chances that the main characters in your life are white are enormous. So reflecting diversity in your fictional world -- while your main characters are all white -- is at least honest about not just perception but your own personal reality. (Of course, it's fiction, so you're supposed to not reflect your own personal reality exactly, but I'm making a point here.)

The first type of book, in which some of the more important characters are of color, makes the situation more complex, because -- while these are the books that really start to deconstruct the white-only paradigm of American fiction -- there's the danger of the Magical Negro, and the dark-skinned sidekick, both stereotypes. There's also the danger, when a CoC is focused on so intently, that the CoC will be either whitewashed, or overethnicized. And finally, there's the danger of tokenizing. Because so much authorly energy is spent on a main CoC, there seems to be no color left for the rest of the humanity, and so you have an M&M adrift in a sea of marshmallows.

To reiterate:  while the diverse-world, white-main-characters book has a world-building honesty to it, it still keeps CoCs in second-class citizen mode. Whereas the oC-main-characters book may utterly fail in world-building. That's what's so puzzling.

What's weird about Thirteenth Child is that this book is two of these types: there are two important characters of color, both black; there are no other characters of color in the book at all; and the whole takes place on a continent that has no indigenous characters of color. If you look hard enough, it looks like a Harold and the Purple Crayon-scape: deft and lively figures and scenes, but drawn on a completely blank background. What has been making everyone so crazy about this book is that it is an attempt to write a "morally correct" fiction with important characters of color, but it is placed over a fictional world that has been deliberately and completely whitewashed.

Let's deal with the first one first: the book has major characters of color. These are a female magic teacher and a male itinerant magician and mentor. Both are black, both practice some fusion of "Avropean" (European) and "Aphrikan" magic, and both mentor the white, female, teenaged protagonist in developing her own magic, which maps better to Aphrikan than Avropean styles. Neither encounters any racism in this world ... one in which slavery was abolished three decades earlier, certainly, but one in which there was black slavery.

While both characters presumably have their own goals in life, we don't know what these might be; they are never hinted at. One character has a background, a family, and a place to go when she leaves the school she's teaching our protag at ... but the fact that she'll be leaving that school shortly after our protag graduates sort of underlines the idea that this teacher is there specfically to help her. The characters serve three purposes in this particular story: to teach the white protag a form of magic that whites couldn't teach her, to diversify the population of the story both by being black and by embodying the cultural diversity of magic, and to give the main characters moral stature by being their friends. (Yes, in a world where trolls cite their one black friend to justify racism, social proximity to one black person does serve to heighten your moral standing.)

So yes, these two characters are the very definition of Magical Negroes. Thus ends the analyze-the-two-characters-of-color portion of this review.

When you look away from these two characters, the rest of this world is entirely white. I've mentioned above that that's a danger of white-authored narratives with important CoCs. But it's much deeper than that in Thirteenth Child. Even white-washed frontier narratives like the Laura Ingalls Wilder books had Indians in the background, or at the very least, the threat of Indians. Their presence in the land was minimized, but it was one of the essential givens of this world, one of the essential elements that shaped frontier life and limited migration. Yes, their presence. Because, unlike with African Americans, whose presence in the US wasn't the issue -- it was rather where they got to go, what they got to do, and who got to decide what these were -- the whole issue with Native Americans was their presence. Remember that little word "genocide"? Yeah, that's a presence issue. It's not about where you get to be, it's about if you get to be.

So, there's a little something extra going on here than merely a white middle class author reflecting her privilege of being able to ignore the PoC all around her since her particular neighborhood is mostly white, as are all her friends. No, this is extra-blanking. Even old SF took us to other worlds to give us our white-only. This is an alternate, white-washed US, a re-do, a retcon. Aside from all the moral issues, it's impossible to get with on an imagination basis. Throughout the reading, especially once they left the safe settlement and went out into the wild, my mind couldn't stick the idea that there were simply no Indians out there. It's the Old West! There are Indians! Bad Indians or good Indians depends on whether it's Terence Malick or John Ford making that film. But there are Indians. My mind kept sliding away from the empty-of-humans landscape and putting Indians over the next ridge. Seriously, it's impossible. The only way I could make it work was by blanking out the landscape and blotting out human AND animal threat, both. This was easy since there weren't many descriptions in the book. And it resulted in the Harold-and-the-Purple-Crayoning of the story.

One more thing I want to mention about this and then I'm done: I have to wonder what Wrede was imagining the landscape as when she wrote this. Did she have trouble seeing the Indian-free landscape? Presumably not, but she doesn't fill in what she sees very much or very well. (Usually I appreciate low-density-of-description narratives but there are times when these don't serve their purpose.) This makes me wonder further ... in whitewashed mainstream narratives there usually isn't a lot of description of landscapes and cityscapes in which PoC don't take place either. I imagine this is because white writers, writing for predominantly white readers, only have to sketch in the consensus perception of an all-white reality with a few gestures. So the barely gestured, non-Indianed US frontier of Thirteenth Child: did Wrede subconsciously assume that the rest of her predominantly white audience could see an unpopulated American West just as easily as she could?

And my last question about that is: could they?

June 27, 2009

Reading Update and Check In

Argh! My writing time yesterday was hijacked by a FIVE HOUR MEETING that wasn't supposed to start for another two hours when I arrived at the cafe. ARgh.

I did finish reading Timmi's Alanya to Alanya two nights ago, and am anxiously awaiting the arrival of the next installment. Awesome (that is a comment, not a review. No-review rule holds.)

June 06, 2009

Reading Update

Two days ago read Timmi's De Secretis Mulierum: A Novella. Now reading a German book, which I'm too lazy to get out of my purse right now to remind myself of the title. Yeah.

June 02, 2009

Reading Update

Still in Berlin. Still on vacation. Still not ready to grapple with topics undertaken.

Just finished Distances: A Novella by Vandana Singh, which I picked up at Wiscon. Almost finished The Shadow Speaker by Nnedi Okorafor, but had to give it to my niece. Will have to buy another one to finish it when I get back. ;)

Distances interesting and rather lovely here and there. Feels like rather standard SF, but there's nothing wrong with that. I like the experiment with describing the art of mathematics. Not always successful, but fun to watch.

Now reading other Aqueduct Press offerings. We now return to our regularly scheduled vacation.

April 26, 2009

Oh Hillary, My Hillary


Hear motherfuckin' hear.

And you wonder why I love her.

April 05, 2009

Weekly Roundup: March 29 - April 4


My folks were in town for a while but left this week. And I've been having trouble getting to sleep, which is making me tired and bad-memoried.

I had to scramble to finish my Asian American women profiles for Hyphen blog this week, before Women's History Month was over. It was a good project, but a lot of work. I asked the readers for suggestions, and most of the suggestions were for artists and writers, which tells you what kind of readers we have, but wasn't terribly helpful. So I had to curate the profiles for age, ethnicity, and field of endeavor. That also meant I had to do some research to actually find a range of women to profile. But I'm glad of the result. You can see all the posts here.

By the way, I'm going to be asking Asian Americans to send in 200-word family histories for me to post on Hyphen Blog for May, which is API Heritage Month. Spread the word!

Also, currently working for Kaya Press and putting together book tours for Australian novelist Brian Castro and Japanese documentary filmmaker Kazuo Hara. We've been watching Hara's films lately, and I have to say, although I would never have sat through one otherwise, I'm glad I was forced to: this guy's a genius. For writers out there, you HAVE to see A Dedicated Life (which you can get on Netflix). It's a documentary about a Japanese novelist, famous for one particular book, who used to be a member of the Japanese communist party and was excommunicated for kicking off his novel writing career by writing a book criticizing it. But that's not what the film is about. The film, an amazing 2.5 hours long, is about narrative and how people build their lives. That's all I can tell you, because it's the kind of film that does what only film can do ... so you can describe it. Watch the film and if your jaw isn't on the ground after the first half hour, and STILL on the ground two hours later, I'll buy you dinner.

I didn't really like his Goodbye CP, which I think was his first film, and which is basically about forcing the audience to watch endless footage of people with cerebral palsy moving through public space and being ignored by others. But definitely see The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On, which is about a super-crazy protester in the 80's who tries to kill his former WWII commander for reasons best understood by watching the film.

Katherine Mieszkowski, probably my favorite writer at Salon, has an article about a couple in Berkeley who acquire most of their stuff by scavenging. It's really interesting and has some tips for down 'n' out East Bay Areans. The irony here is that this couple has written a book about scavenging, which you have to buy new, because presumably most people who buy it aren't going to toss it out.

My friend Jaime said last weekend, after the funeral of the four Oakland policemen, that he thinks a city can reach a point where its reputation is just broken, and there's no coming back. I've been watching The Wire on netflix these past few weeks, and Oakland feels like that right now: broken beyond repair. The anger that Oscar Grant's killing unleashed was one side of the violence coin -- and the police DO have a lot to answer for, over the years and right now. But these killings are the other side, an indication that when violence gets this out of control, no one is safe. The one thing everyone can agree on is that Mayor Dellums is an asshole. The feeling in Oakland right now is sadness just on the edge of despair; there's no real anger, just shock. And the violence continues.

I saw the William Kentridge show at SFMOMA last weekend and highly, highly, HIGHLY recommend it. Don't wanna talk about it right now, though. Also saw the Nick Cave show at YBCA. Candylicious!

And I've started revisions on Draft 3 of da nobble. And started writing dates with other writers. If this works out, I might have a way of sticking to it. I have to get this sleep issue resolved, though, because I don't have much brain power this week.

Saw Amber Benson, who played Tara on Buffy, on BART last weekend. At first I thought she was someone I knew down the way, so familiar did she seem. I stared a little, but tried not to bother. She was with a group of geek girls, which is cool.

Been watching the first season of 21 Jump Street on Y*O*U*T*U*B*E. Yeah, it's cheesy (the music is truly horrible), but the storytelling is actually pretty decent. I remember LOVING this show back in the day: it started the year I went off to college. I was still seventeen when I first went: still a teenager in a lot of ways. So I watched it off and on until Johnny Depp left. The gender and racial dynamics are so clear in this show, it makes me understand the 80's much better. Holly Robinson's character is the only woman on the force (there are no female extras in uniform). She's depicted as being just as capable as the men ... but she never has to fight anyone. Whenever there's a shooting or an accident that she's involved in, all the men get this look of concern on their faces and touch her shoulder and ask if she's alright. God, I remember that.

As far as the racial dynamic goes, the only black characters on the show so far are bad guys, except for Robinson and the captain. There's even one episode where a rich white kid gets hooked on smack and is forced by his black dealer, also a teenager, to rob stores to pay for his dope. The black dealer gets put away and the white junkie gets off scot free with no explanation. Everyone feels sorry for him. And yet, there's some sophistication in the way the individual characters interact racially. In the pilot, Johnny Depp's character is surprised that Holly Robinson's character owns an MG. She laughs at him and asks him if she should have a pimpmobile instead. No pretty-boy cop-show hero nowadays would ever be allowed to make racist assumptions like that.

Pireeni gave me Proust Was A Neuroscientist for my birthday (very belatedly) and I've started reading it.

Will do a sleep study next week.

That is all.

March 27, 2009

TV Nosh and Bechdel Natter

Everybody's talking 'bout BSG and I still haven't seen it yet! Rrrrrr. Stupid Scifi network.

On the bright side, "Chuck" is starting to get good. I was worried that we were in for another season of "I love Sarah, but I can't have her, but I love her, but I can't have her ..." But now it looks like he's going to be investigating on his own. Kewl. On the down side, "Chuck" STILL hasn't passed the Bechdel test, and that's annoying. There are four awesome women in the show -- a spy, a doctor, a computer geek, and a general -- and none of them have anything better to do than to worry about the men in their lives. Even the general only ever worries about Chuck. And while the men have real moral dilemmas, the women only have to choose between men. Argh.

I'm also in season 3 of "The Wire" and totally addicted. I'm a little worried that the only way they know how to play Kima, a married-with-kid lesbian, is to make her a man with tits. In the first season she got shot and everyone was all over themselves about it, solely because she was a woman. Argh. Plus, we don't get to see any female friendships or close relationships on the show, except for Kima's brokedown marriage, and that, as I said, is merely a coded het marriage. So it's riding the line for me right now. We'll see.

The new show, "Kings," while interesting for now, looks like more of the same on the Bechdel front. Hell, it's called "Kings."

And I'm NOT watching "Lost" or "Heroes." So there.

I really wish ABC would either get on Hulu or get a better player. Their player has never worked for me. But I guess it's all to the good, since it means less TV I'm watching.


January 23, 2009

Readin' Update

Nisi Shawl FILTER HOUSE

A book of short stories from a fabulous writer who is my friend so the no-review rule holds. Awrsome.

Ernest J. Eitel WHAT IS FENG SHUI?: THE CLASSIC NINETEETH-CENTURY INTERPRETATION

Just what the title says: an 1873 publication from an English-language press in Hong Kong. Eitel was a German Protestant missionary -- apparently with a gift for languages -- who spent his career in China and ended up becoming something of an expert in Feng Shui, Buddhism, and Cantonese, writing texts on the first two and a dictionary of the last. He has his own form of Romanization for Cantonese, apparently.

Anywho, the book is extremely valuable not just for helping me to cut through all the latter day, Westernized, interior decorating crap that fills most feng shui books I can find, but it also teaches 19th Century feng shui and conveys the attitude of an educated and enlightened Western man towards feng shui.

Eitel is alternately contemptuous of and fascinated by feng shui, condemning it as "rank superstition" at the same time that he claims it as legitimate Chinese natural science. He makes the point that I've had to make before, that although the art/science of feng shui is infused with hoo doo and superstition, and doesn't follow the strict rules of western empiricism, there has been a science to the manner of study of feng shui; there is a form of empiricism and experimentation involved -- only it isn't "pure."

Perfect research item for da nobble.

January 19, 2009

Obama Thoughts: Hope and Despair

Stimulating and challenging discussion with Shailja yesterday over the course of a writing date. She expressed distrust towards the Sense of Hope TM that has risen around Obama's campaign and election (and now inauguration.) She's concerned that it's another mass-opiate.

I was thinking rather that it was a swing back to the other emotional extreme, after 8 years of the American public (and that is both right and left) being completely helpless to influence or affect the administration or national policy, and the concomitant despair that has been collecting over that. The despair, interestingly enough, although felt increasingly by the farther left all along, has only manifested in the mainstream in the last eighteen months or so -- not coincidentally, around the same time that long-ass campaign started. So I think the public can't maintain a sense of hope OR despair for very long: we avoid despair for as long as we can, and I think hope is fickle, if not fragile.

What I'm saying is that despair can't motivate us for long, and hope can't motivate -- or opiate -- us for long.

It also makes me think about the alchemy of the election. Our sense of despair arose right around the same time as our sense of hope. I think neither could manifest in the collective consciousness without the other. As a people, we staved off despair about Bush until two not merely viable, but transformational alternatives appeared. Then we all, as a mass, dropped any hope of Bush transforming his administration into something of any value and turned to Hillary and Obama.

And let's not gainsay Hillary's importance in this alchemical equation. The Hope TM came from a conjunction of symbolic sources (and when I say "first ____ candidate," I mean "first viable _____ candidate"):

  1. First Woman candidate = potential final barrier to gender inequality being removed. Curiously, at no time since the women's movement has there been a moment, or an issue, that has been elevated to Symbolic of the Continuing Oppression of Women TM in the public consciousness. Not Anita Hill, not the many abortion fights, not the Duke Rape Scandal, not Lorena Bobbitt. Each of these and many others simply elevated its specific issue to public consciousness, but feminism failed in -- or was blocked from -- connecting each issue to the general issue of gender inequality. I think this is part of the reason that misogyny could be so blatant in this campaign. People think of sexism as smoke and mirrors -- whiny, crocs-wearing women -- and don't connect it to unequal pay, workplace sexual harrassment, rape, domestic violence, and reproductive control.

    And yet we carry with us as a nation a vast, painful uneasiness with each other (after all, half of us are men and the other half women), a vague sense that something is not right that we wish was right. And the appearance of Hillary, while arousing a terrible, sexist rage and hatred in men -- particularly men of my generation, heartbreakingly enough -- also aroused a strong, if vague, hope in them that her presence in the election, and her potential election, would lay this terrible uneasiness to rest.

    And let's be clear: it was only Hillary who could have done this. Immediately below I point out that only someone like Obama could have done his part, and I say that not to discount Obama's individual personality, but to point out that Obama had to simultaneously build his individual image and build his image as symbolic of national and racial healing. I don't think -- I really, really, really don't believe -- that a woman could have done the same thing in the same amount of time. I believe that there is a much greater resistance in the public consciousness to accepting a woman in a leadership image than there is to accepting a man in a leadership image. And that includes men of color, because we've been seeing strong, amazing men of color in leadership roles since Frederick Douglass ... and even during the Civil Rights Movement men-as-leaders of the race wasn't a hard concept to take in. The resistance to women is greater, so women have to take more time to develop their image. Compare Obama to Sarah Palin, who had even less time to build an image than he did. She was very popular on the right, but popular as a mascot, an attraction, a curiousity ... NOT as a leader. It'll be interesting to see how long it takes her to become leaderly in the public consciousness. I'll take bets as to whether she manages it by 2012 or if it'll take until 2016.

    In any case, I've argued before that for liberal or moderate women to achieve leadership in government, they have to be part of a political dynasty (and also that conservative women have to claw their way up through the ranks, be more tough than the mens, and have husbands who aren't in politics, all of which obtains in the Hillary/Sarah Palin case.) Hillary isn't just the only moderate/liberal in American politics who fulfills that requirement (although that's enough); she's also the only one who has a powerful and distinct public image both as an individual, and as a leader. It is this last -- her image as a leader -- that has caused such rage and hatred among sexist men: they don't think she should be viewed as a leader, Because She Hasn't Earned It TM. And this is part and parcel of what made Hillary so effective as a woman candidate: deep down, the men who oppose her don't believe that any woman could deserve such a position, so if Hillary won it, it might be enough to shut up those feminists.

  2. First Candidate of Color = potential final barrier to race inequality being removed. I really don't think I need to comment much on this except to remind everyone that the general confusion about what Obama actually IS, racially, worked entirely in his favor. He was able to stave off the descent of the usual stereotypes onto his image for long enough to build a distinct, and unique, image for himself. That is entirely to his credit and the credit of his campaign team, but he should be credited for taking advantage of the blessed circumstances he was born to, and not for inventing a world in which a strange, multiracial, transnational man of partial African descent is the only possible person who can simultaneously tap the hope for racial union and short-circuit the fear of the Angry Black Man TM.

    And he was the only possible person. A Gen-X, American-born descendent of American slaves could not have done it. A woman of Obama's background could not have done it. Someone of a non-African lineage could not have done it. It had to be someone like Obama, and we, as a nation, did not -- prior to this election -- have the imagination to realize that it wasn't The Next Jesse Jackson TM, who was going to get it done but someone as peculiar and Inexplicable and twenty-first century as Obama.

  3. First Gen-X-ish candidate (just as Gen-Xers are taking over leadership positions in all sectors) = potential final enfranchisement of our generation, otherwise known as accession of our Generation TM to boss-status. We've been ruled by Baby Boomers in the media since Reagan, and in the government since Clinton. The worst president in living memory (and that includes Herbert Hoover) is a Baby Boomer. It's Time for A Change.

  4. First Woman + First Gen-X-ish Candidate of Color + Horrible Failure of a Conservative White Male = we're ready to lay off all our white, male guilt on George W. Bush and cleanse our own souls. We can only be talking about a post-race, post-feminist era now because all these terms and ideas have finally reached -- if not penetrated or convinced -- the mainstream public consciousness. No white, and no male, can walk comfortably around in the world without worrying if they're racist or sexist -- or at least worrying if others will see them that way.

    Combine this with the utter and complete failure of every single Bush policy to achieve what he said it would, or to even achieve anything of value unexpectedly, not to mention the steady deterioration of the national sense of self-esteem as we watched ourselves turn into rabid, nationalistic torturers and imprisoners (seriously, we can justify becoming brutal until the cows come home -- and believe it, too -- but at the end of the day, we're still brutal) and what we have is a perfect storm. Nobody wants to be the horrible, entitled white, or male, or white male, and Dubya pretty much set himself up to be hated. So let's pile our load of guilt on his goatish back and slaughter the bastard (now, if only we could take that symbolic slaughter past the election and into a courtroom ...)

If any of these elements had been missing, Obama might not have succeeded (it took a scary white women to frighten the decisive number of recalcitrant white males into supporting Obama.) More importantly, if any of these elements had been missing, our plate of hope would have been missing a major food group. Not a balanced meal. The Obama campaign made us feel completely healthy for the first time in 8 years of junk food. If a vegetable or a fruit had been missing, or protein, or whatever, it would not have been the whole hog: Hope.

So yes, it's definitely a monolithic Feeling TM that is easy to exploit commercially (although I think it's appropriate and salutary that Obama's first effect in office will be a minor boost to our economy through Obamabilia), but I'm not too worried about it opiating people indefinitely. Losing that Perfect Hope Storm TM will pique the public (I hope), and the first time Obama feels like compromising (or maybe the second or tenth) the More Than A Feeling TM will go away and people will sink back into Apathy As Usual or be moved to protest.

Obviously, I hope it's the latter, but I don't believe that people as a group entity can sustain political action -- or even political concern -- for very long. It's more important that we have an administration that is affected by the protest and action of the few, than that we mobilize everyone forever ... and to possibly little effect.

December 09, 2008

Gendering Blogs

Via Aqueduct blog I came to the Gender Analyzer, an AI-driven online app that tells you whether a man or a woman wrote a particular blog.

Naturally I had to try it out:

  • atlas(t), my mapping, geography, 'n' stuff blog, is 70% certain to be male.
  • atlas(t): The Galleon Trade Edition, my art blog of the Galleon Trade artists exchange project, is 59% certain to be male, "however it's quite gender neutral."
  • SeeLight, this very blog, is 58% male, but is also "quite gender neutral."
  • APAture Live, the live blog I kept for the 10th Annual APAture arts festival, is 52% male, but also ... you know.
  • EnterBrainment, my paid entertainment blog, which I've abandoned now, is 57% FEMALE (but quite gender neutral).

It's interesting, because I use pretty much the same diction and sentence structures in all five blogs, but the vocabulary is different because the topics covered are different. Atlas(t) has a lot of abstract terms, and a very wide variety of terms, because of all the blogs, this one covers the broadest range of topics. Galleon Trade Edition is mostly about art, and SeeLight is mostly about literature. APAture Live was about multidisciplinary arts, but also about relationships and community. And EnterBrainment was about entertainment and celebrities, written for a primarily female audience.

So what I can gather from all of this is that they have simply gendered sets of vocabularies. Sigh.

November 02, 2008

As Sarah Failin' Would Say: Readin' Update

So I just finished Obama's Dreams From My Father.

Not sure how to get into this discussion. Obama is, surprisingly, a very good prose writer: assured, smooth, with a good sense of prose rhythm and shape. Maybe I shouldn't be surprised: there are a lot of lawyers who end up writing fiction, so there must be something in the education that trains one's prose style. But the outlines of his career that he lays out in the book tend to indicate little interest in the life of the imagination, or in aesthetics.

But maybe it's what I talked about once, with language issues and writing. I don't know if I ever blogged about this, but when I first lived in Berlin, I was part of an American writers group: five of us, two women and three men, two poets and three fiction writers, all in our twenties, most of us creative writing or English majors, all--except me--white. We didn't do too much workshopping (thank oG), we mostly just sat around talking about books and reading. We'd have poetry face-offs, where one person would bring in a favorite poet and read the favorite poems, and then another would respond with poems on similar topics or using similar tactics. Good--if geeky--times.

So one day I told the group that I had--apparently, I was too young to remember--had a bit of a problem with language acquisition as a toddler. I had started out in Cantonese (I was born in Hong Kong). When I was one and a half, we moved to the States and at about two years, we started speaking mostly English at home. Between two and three, I spoke a personal brand of Chinglish--not one I learned from a community, that is--which mixed vocabulary, grammar, and tones from both languages. Apparently, only my older sister fully understood me. By the age of three, I had separated the two languages and was speaking both correctly, and by four I had pretty much stopped learning Cantonese.

So I told the group  maybe my fascination with language and my desire to master it through writing arose from my early troubles with language acquisition, and suggested that maybe a lot of writers had early troubles with language as well. They all immediately pooh-poohed the idea. Then, over the course of the next hour, it turned out that: the other woman in the group had actually spent her early childhood somewhere in Africa with her linguist father, and apparently (she doesn't remember) spoke the local language fluently; one of the men in the group had had a bad stutter as a child and had to go to speech therapy for years; and another of the men in the group--and this is the best story--had been unable to learn to read or write until he was fourteen years old. He came from a well-off family of all college-educated professionals, and his disability simply stumped everyone until he was fourteen and they sent him to a new program that taught him how to juggle. Something about developmental steps that connect eye-hand coordination and mental processes. In any case, he caught up with thirteen years of school within three, and was able to go off to college "on time".

So, out of five writers, four had had some sort of issue or circumstance in their lives that had made language acquisition either "thorny" (in the words of the one writer of the group with no thorniness) or something of particular import and weight. Something to think about.

All that just to suggest that Barack Obama, who lived in Indonesia from six to ten and spoke Indonesian fluently, might have something similar going on here. With the language issue, the writing issue. With the wanting to be the most powerful man in the world issue? Not sure what's up with that.

Although it's well-written in the prose-style sense, it's poorly written in the emotional sense. Obama sticks too closely to the expected emotional/dramatic arc of search and redemption. Along the way, he writes remarkably little--and that very ineffectively--about his own feelings or responses. When he does write about his feelings, it's in a detached way, and he eliminates feelings from the narrative frequently. In what is supposed to be the book's emotional climax (I had not thought, until that moment, that there was going to be one) I didn't even know that he was experiencing any emotion until he described the tears running down his face. Very strange.

All this might have something to do with the fact that, throughout this book, which is an autobiography, not a memoir, there's an 800 pound gorilla in the room: Barack Obama Sr. had three wives and a girlfriend, usually simultaneously, two of them white Americans, and couldn't--didn't--take care of them or the six-odd children he fathered with them. The situation is made clear in the book, but no one addresses it directly. The book is full of resentments toward fathers, full of passive aggressive moments of almost-accusation made toward Obama the father or the grandfather. But no one, not even the narrator, ever sits down and says: we have a problem with fathers and fatherhood here; let's state some facts baldly before we attempt to interpret them.

Maybe Obama felt he would be betraying the complexity of his father's story if he laid out the facts that way ... although I have to say, he had no problems betraying the complexity of his grandmother's feelings about race in his much-praised race speech earlier this year. This is one of my ongoing problems with Obama: the half-assedness of his gender awareness compared with his race awareness. Maybe he felt he would be underlining a stereotype of black men if he characterized his father as being an irresponsible Johnny Appleseed with six or more kids from four women whom he left to the rest of his family to support ... but then that would be the truth. Maybe it would be a betrayal of complexity to point out that his father left his first--African--wife, twice, for white women. Maybe it's too much to ask Obama to speculate on the meaning of this. But I don't think it's too much, given that he wrote the damn book--subtitled "A Story of Race and Inheritance"--in the first place. And while he was ducking this issue, writing a book about a father who hadn't cared enough about him to include him in his life, his mother was dying of cancer.

Yes, I'm supporting Obama. And I read the book with a great deal of excitement, because I felt convinced that maybe I had misread what I perceived earlier as Obama's lack of enthusiasm when it came to women's issues and gender equality. I was reading the book to increase my knowledge of, and excitement about, Obama's candidacy. But there it all was, in his book. Let me clarify: you don't have to be an outright sexist to just not give a shit about women's rights. You can love and respect the women in your life and like women in general, and still feel that gender equity really isn't your problem. And this is the feeling I get from Obama.

I just got an email this summer from a man who was one of my best friends in college. He had contacted me again about a year and a half ago and we've been emailing back and forth. In response to a complaint from me about the lack of confidence I see in men I'm dating online, he wrote, "All the men our age grew up being beaten down by the Feminist Revolution." I have been unable to write back to him since receiving that email, because I simply don't know how to express my outrage and betrayal at such a simple-minded and viciously wrong statement, that faults the liberation and uplift of HALF OF HUMANITY for the loss of a few privileges of a few members of the other half.

It is this same betrayal I'm feeling from Obama and his campaign and too many of the men of my age cohort who support him. I thought this was over, but it's not over and it's not gonna be over. He cares about the big issues, but not about a little tiny issue like the difficult climb to equality for half the world. Fuck him.

October 13, 2008

Fat Talk Free Week!

The video above is an ad for "Fat Talk Free Week," which begins TODAY! Yay!

Fat Talk Free Week (click link for info) is a week during which you don't "fat talk," that is, you don't say how fat you or other women are, you don't focus on your appearance, or talk about eating or exercising in terms of how they affect your appearance.

Sound easy? It's harder than you think. One of the sentences the ad identifies as "fat talk" is "You look great!" And I did have to stop and think about that one. But really, think about the last time you said that. Did you mean, "wow, you look like you've lost weight!"? Did you mean, "wow, that dress makes you look ten pounds thinner!"? The last time I said it, I meant, "Wow, you look happy! I didn't realize how depressed you've been looking until I saw you looking happy just now!" but almost always before that I meant, "wow, you look like you've lost weight!"

I'm actually pretty good about not fat talking, but I'm very bad about fat thinking, so here are some things I'm not going to do this week:

  • pinch up my belly fat and shake it disgustedly
  • hang on to those pants I've never worn that are too small for me
  • buy that fall jacket I wanted that's too small for me because I'm going to lose the weight ... one of these years.
  • stand on my scale.

Here's what I'm going to do instead:

  • exercise every day this week, because it makes me feel good.
  • make sure those superfoods are in my shopping cart, because they make me feel like I'm taking care of my health.
  •  fast tonight, so I can go in tomorrow and get those tests done that I've been avoiding. I'm getting blood drawn tomorrow, people! Wild horses and procrastination shall not stop me!

How about you? What are you going to do this week?

Via. Crosspost.

September 22, 2008

Vote on Sarah Palin Poll!

I just got an email saying that PBS has a poll on Sarah Palin's qualifications that the Repugs have organized a yes vote for.

So be sure to vote yourself!

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