Author Archives: Annalee

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Whitewashing? KHAAAAN!

JJ Abrams, the director of Star Trek (2009) and the upcoming Star Trek Into Darkness is known for being secretive about his upcoming projects. He’s taken it to an extreme with Into Darkness, however: he won’t even confirm the identity of the villain.

Rumors have been flying all over the place for months, of course. The most common is that Benedict Cumberbatch is playing the iconic Original Trek character Khan.

Ricardo Montalban in Fiesta trailer

Ricardo Montalbán as Mario Morales in Fiesta (1947).

I really, really hope it’s not true.

Khan, full name Khan Noonien Singh, was originally played by Ricardo Montalbán. He first appeared in the Original Trek episode Space Seed; in which he’s identified as being “[f]rom the northern India area…. Probably a Sikh.” (Here’s the clip; skip to 9:10 for the line).

Benedict Cumberbatch 2011 (jpg)

Benedict Cumberbatch. By Sam Hughes from UK derivative work: RanZag [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Benedict Cumberbatch is a very talented actor. He is also a very white actor.

Normally, pointing this out invites comments like “Ricardo Montalbán wasn’t Indian either!” That’s true. Hollywood has a long and ugly history of using raceface to portray characters of color. It also has an ugly history of whitewashing characters of color–casting white actors to portray the characters as white.

Which is exactly what they’ve done, yet again, if Benedict Cumberbatch is playing Khan.

The Stop Whitewashing Tumblr has a great primer on why that’s problematic. Here’s another excellent introduction.

Racebending.com also has many smart things to say about whitewashing, including an extensive history of Hollywood’s use of raceface and whitewashing of Asian characters.

The short of it is that there are disproportionately few roles for actors of color as it stands, and those roles that do exist often take a back seat to the many roles already available to white men (especially talented, famous white men like Cumberbatch). Whitewashing characters of color is a form of systematic racism.

Khan is an interesting, complex, and iconic villain, and it’s not 1967 anymore. If the film features a character of Indian descent, there is absolutely no excuse for not hiring an actor of Indian descent to play the part.

Edit to Add–a few links, courtesy Racebending’s fantastically awesome tumblr:

The Whitewashing Khan tumblr. “It’s wrong and you know it.” That about sums it up, yeah.

Racebending breaks down why “it’s just an action movie” and “but Cumberbatch is awesome!” do not excuse whitewashing.

Charlie Jane Anders tackled this on io9 almost a year ago, with insightful commentary on what a white Khan means in terms of Khan’s background with eugenics.

[This post's featured image is from wikimedia commons, cc-by-sa wikipedian Jesperhansen1972]

Changelog–this post has been updated (see comments for details):
–”That’s true. He was Hispanic. Wikipedia pegs him as the son of Castillian Spaniards. I don’t know whether he self-identified as a person of color. If he did, But while there is certainly plenty to say about Hollywood’s habit of casting people of color to play characters from completely different backgrounds as if all brown people look the same (Montalbán played more than one Asian character during his career),. But that is a separate issue entirely from Hollywood’s ugly history of casting white people to play characters of color.”
++”That’s true. Hollywood has a long and ugly history of using raceface to portray characters of color. It also has an ugly history of whitewashing characters of color–casting white actors to portray the characters as white.”

akirachix-flickr-user-cesarharada-cc-nc-sa

Wednesday Geek Women: Akirachix

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Akirachix at iHub in Nairobi. Photo by Cesar Harada, cc-nc-sa.

Based in Nairobi, Kenya, Akirachix is an association of women in tech. Through mentorship, training programs, and networking, they’re working to “inspire and develop a successful force of women in Technology that will change Africa’s future.”

According to the Akirachix website, women make up half of Africa’s workforce, but only 15% of the tech industry. Last December, American news service National Public Radio sat down with Akirachix president Judith Owigar, who talked about what it’s like to be a woman in the Kenyan tech scene:

“You know you’re the oddball just because of your gender,” Owigar says.

It turns out that in Kenya, exactly as in Silicon Valley, the problem with getting more women in tech is that there aren’t more women in tech.

“There are probably other women in tech who are alone, and they think they’re the weird ones, but if enough of us meet together, you know, it won’t be so weird anymore.”

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photo by Flickr user Dreamfish, cc-nc-sa.

So what are they doing about it? They’ve built a support network of two hundred women in technology. They’re hacking the pipeline with mentorship programs for high school girls and training programs for talented women, many of whom can’t afford the tuition costs of a formal degree. They run a mobile app competition to encourage local entrepreneurs to build tools for their own communities:

Africa has 644 million subscribers (approximately 11% of the global total) and this has powered a social and economic revolution. As more people get access to mobile phones and Internet penetration increases they will need applications and services to serve their need. African developers are well positioned to come up with applications for this new mobile user and serve the existing ones in new ways.

With grant funding from international development interests, they’re working to build a mobile social network, and partnered with Computer Aid International to build an open-source screen magnifier to improve visual accessibility.

Learn more about Akirachix on their website and blog, or follow them on twitter.

Mary Robinette Kowak, by Eric James Stone, cc-by-sa

Wednesday Geek Woman: Mary Robinette Kowal, author and puppeteer

Mary Robinette Kowak, by Eric James Stone, cc-by-sa

Mary Robinette Kowal, by Eric James Stone, cc-by-sa

Mary Robinette Kowal is an award-winning author of Science Fiction and Fantasy. She has a lot of work available for free online, including Hugo award winner “For Want of a Nail,” Nebula nominated novella “Kiss Me Twice,” and my personal favorite of her shorter works, “The Lady Astronaut of Mars.”

without-a-summerShe’s also got a brand-new book out this week: Without A Summer. It takes place in London, in 1816, the real year without a summer. If you enjoy Fantasy novels and the works of Jane Austen, and especially if you enjoy fantasy novels revolving around women, I definitely recommend adding this one to your list–I got an early look at it, and loved it to bits. The most important actors in the story are women, the central interpersonal conflict is between women, and while all the main characters are white, it’s nice to see a Regency novel that acknowledges that there were, in fact, people of color in 19th century England.

Over on John Scalzi’s blog, Kowal talks about the roles class and social upheaval play in the book, and about writing a Regency heroine who’s facing her prejudices on matters of race and class.

Kowal is also a professional puppeteer–her twitter feed is a goldmine of funny-out-of-context nuggets about puppet-making. You can also catch up with her over on her blog, or at the writing podcast Writing Excuses.

Rectangular plain biscuit with the word 'NICE' baked into it

Cookie of the Week*: Chad Whitacre (whit537) came up with a better name

This is a guest post by Annalee. Annalee is a python programmer and general-purpose geek. She can be found on Twitter as @leeflower and Dreamwidth as annalee.

Cookie of the Week* is an occasional series highlighting action in the geek community to fight sexism, in order to show that fighting sexism is possible and happening.

When Chad Whitacre announced on Twitter that he’d just released a new version of Testosterone, “the manly testing interface for Python,” a friend of his called him out, asking “what, exactly, makes it manly?”

After a brief, polite back-and fourth, Whitacre slept on it, and apologized.

Then he announced that he’s renamed his project. Here’s an excerpt:

really do want to encourage women in tech (I have three young daughters), and a project like testosterone does not do that. I remember being surprised to see a woman at PyCon 2011. I don’t have the data, but anecdotally I’m telling you there were LOTS more women at PyCon 2012. Let’s do more of that!

It is now assertEquals, “the epic testing interface for Python.”

If anyone’s wondering how to handle being called out on twitter: this right here is how you handle it.

So here’s your cookie, Mr. Whitacre:

Rectangular plain biscuit with the word 'NICE' baked into it

Image description: a rectangular shortbread cookie with scalloped edges and the word “NICE” stamped into the middle.

Does anyone else have any cookies to spare this week?

* Disclaimer: cookies may not be baked weekly!

A female and male human character from The Old Republic: both are the maximum size allowed but the female model is much thinner

A Jedi Needs Not Games To #Fail: Ableism, Fat Hatred, Heterosexism, and Misogyny in Star Wars: The Old Republic

Annalee is a gamer and general-purpose geek. She can be found on Twitter as @leeflower.

Like most feminist gamers I know, I have learned to give myself permission to love problematic things. If I didn’t, I’d pretty much have to give up on video games entirely.

The fact that I’ve grown accustomed to the whiff of garbage that comes with almost every game on the market doesn’t mean I can’t smell it, though. So while I’m having a heck of a lot of fun playing Star Wars: The Old Republic, I am also slapping my forehead a lot and going “really Bioware? Did you seriously just- I mean, really?

Because boy howdy does this game have some issues. Minor spoilers ahoy.

Ableism.

On pretty much every world you visit in SWTOR, there’s at least one sort of stock mob-usually some kind of aggressive animal-standing around to attack you on your way from one quest area to the next.

Then there’s the prison world of Belsavis, where mobs of escaped prisoners rove the landscape between you and every objective. Lest you get the impression that all of these prisoners are, as the story suggests, the very worst of the worst criminals the republic has to incarcerate, some of them are helpfully labeled for you as “lunatics” and other charming ableist slurs. Because people with mental illnesses are totally the same as vicious animals, amirite?

(Also, Seriously? The great Galactic Republic, shining beacon of justice and equality, has no facilities for people with mental illnesses who are a danger to others, and instead throws them in with the general prison population? What?).

Fat Hatred

When you create your character, you have a choice of four body types. For a guy toon, your options vary from lanky to football coach. When you play a woman, your choices are bratz doll, barbie doll, she-hulk, and one that I guess passes for plus-sized in mass-media land.

Here’s what I mean-these are the two “plus-size” models, side by side:

A female and male human character from The Old Republic: both are the maximum size allowed but the female model is much thinner

Yeah, so apparently Even Longer Ago in a Galaxy Not Quite As Far Away, ‘plus’ was a bra size. Because everyone knows fat women can’t be heroes, amirite?

As you zoom about the galaxy, you’ll encounter many fat guys. They’re soldiers, wardens, shopkeepers, spies, smugglers, community organizers, and Jedi. You’ll see not a single flippin’ fat woman anywhere. They just don’t exist.

And if erasing fat women from the galaxy wasn’t enough, the protocol droid on my ship helpfully informs me every once in a while that he’s put my crew on a diet. My crew of athletic guys and one skinny woman; all of whom spend their time sprinting across strange planets, getting into fistfights with monsters, and kicking the forces of evil in the face. God forbid these folks exercise their own discretion about how much fuel their bodies need. Not when BioWare can get in a cheap shot at fat people and call it a “joke.”

Heteronormativity

After the great strides BioWare made towards including gays and lesbians in Dragon Age, SWTOR has felt like a big step backward. All romance options are heterosexual, and if any of the non-player-characters are in same-gender relationships, they never mention it. Heterosexual relationships, on the other hand, appear quite regularly.

Back in 2009, there were reports of people being banned from the game’s official forums for questioning why words like “gay,” “lesbian,” and “homosexual” were on the censored words list. Banned, that is, after being rudely informed by a BioWare staffer that those words “don’t exist” in Star Wars. Classy.

(I guess we all just imagined Juhani the lesbian Jedi from the original Knights of the Old Republic, then?).

Last September, they changed their tune, releasing a statement saying that same-gender romances will be available as a post-launch feature, and citing the “design constraints” of a fully-voiced MMO as the reason they weren’t able to include it at launch. I took that as fair enough-they hadn’t committed the resources for the extra dialogue they were going to need, and it was going to take some time to fix it.

That is, until I encountered the first character that would have been a romance option if my toon were male. If you’re playing a dude, she initiates a relationship, and you have the choice to take her up on it. If you’re playing a woman, there’s an entirely separate, fully-voiced conversation in which she awkwardly asks to adopt you as her sister.

So, in fact, they spent extra time and effort to remove the same-gender romance option. I’m not sure heterosexism really counts as a “design constraint,” BioWare. But I guess a statement reading “We made a horrible mistake and are working as hard as we can to fix it, and we apologize to all our players for the bigoted, hostile statements we’ve made in the past about this issue” would have taken a little more courage than they had on hand.

LOL slavery, amirite? [TW for violence against women]

If you play a Sith Warrior, one of your companion characters is an accomplished treasure hunter the Sith have enslaved. Your dark side options involve [Trigger Warning] torturing her with a shock collar and either making her watch you have sex or forcing her into a threesome (it’s not clear which).

I know, I know: dark side Sith are supposed to be evil, so slavery, torture, and sexual harassment/assault are just part of their alignment, right? Bullcookies. Any writer worth hiring is creative enough to come up with dark side options that don’t involve turning slavery and violence against women into a punchline.

(h/t Club Jade for that link).

Objectification

If you pre-ordered the game, your character starts out with a handful of mostly-useless toys, like a flare gun and a droid that buzzes around. Oh, and a holographic burlesque dancer.

A woman dancer, of course. I imagine some of the guys playing the game might start feeling vaguely gross and uncomfortable if they had to run the risk of seeing a mostly-naked dude shaking his thang every time they entered a populated area. I imagine this because that’s exactly how I feel about that flippin’ hologram.

And since we’re talking about feeling vaguely gross and uncomfortable, let’s talk about the slave bikini.

For the most part, I have been quite impressed with BioWare when it comes to armor options for women. Unlike most games (where full-body armor magically morphs into a bikini when you equip it on your woman toon), all but one piece of armor I’ve found in the game has looked perfectly sensible and protective on my lady knight (the exception was a piece of low-level armor that magically lost a midriff when I put it on, but kept its sleeves and neckline). Women characters start off wearing pants and a shirt (PANTS! It’s amazing! It’s like they know that most women don’t do their butt-kicking in bathing suits, or something!).

But of course, it’s Star Wars, and you can’t have a Star Wars property without some kind of reference to Leia’s slave outfit. So if you’ve got the extra in-game cash to burn, you can buy it and equip it on your character.

Well, if you’re playing a woman, that is. Unlike every other garment in the game, which can be equipped onto either available gender, the slave outfit is ladies only. Also, I say “your character,” but really, I mean “your companion,” because so far, every time I’ve seen it, it’s been a player with a dude character, who’s equipped the bikini on their female non-player companion character.

At first, I thought maybe they included it as a joke, and just didn’t account for people actually wanting cheesecake enough to take massive armor penalties to have it. Sadly, I was mistaken. Because rather than making people live with the consequences of forcing their companion to walk around in metal underwear, they decided to make Leia’s slave outfit armor.

In fact, it’s not just armor; it’s orange-grade armor, which means it’s some of the best armor you can get. You can have your character walking around in a bikini that protects her as well as anything else she can put on.

So no, it’s not a bad joke gone wrong. They actually incentivized using it. The fact that I have to put up with other players reducing their companion characters to sex objects is no accident at all. And of course there’s no version for guys. Like the bikini itself, that gross feeling that comes with being subjected to someone else’s demeaning fantasy is reserved for ladies only.

There are a lot of things to love about this game. It’s well designed and well-paced, with engaging stories and gorgeous graphics. The mechanics are smooth and easy to learn, and the details are delightful. As a gamer and a Star Wars fan, I’m having a heck of a lot of fun with it. I don’t even want to know how many hours I’ve clocked playing since launch.

As a queer woman and feminist, however, I’m having to close my nose. Because there is an undeniable whiff of garbage.


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