Tag Archives: SF fandom

The Curious Incident of the Novelette and the Hugo Ballot

Mary Robinette Kowal’s “The Lady Astronaut of Mars.”

Something hinky happened with the Hugo Awards Best Novelette category this year.

The committee responsible for one of Science Fiction literature’s top awards decided to contravene both the award’s rules and its precedent to disqualify Mary Robinette Kowal’s “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” from consideration, without even telling her.

The Hugo Awards are basically the Oscars of Science Fiction literature. They’re awarded every year at WorldCon, and administered under the rules of the World Science Fiction Society’s Constitution. WorldCon members are eligible to nominate Science Fiction or Fantasy stories that appeared for the first time during the previous year, and the five stories in each category to receive the most nominations appear on the Hugo ballot. (More on the voting process here).

Last year, Kowal’s “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” appeared in Audible.com’s RIP-OFF! Anthology, which was an audiobook. In February 2013, she posted the text of the story, exactly as it was turned in to Audible, on her website (incidentally, if you haven’t read The Lady Astronaut of Mars yet, it is freaking awesome and you should probably have it in your life. Go ahead and read it. The rest of this post will still be here when you get back).

When all of the Hugo nominations for the novelette category were tallied up, “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” came in third (see the vote breakdown on page 20 of the 2013 Hugo Awards Statistics Report).

And here’s where things get weird. The story clearly had enough nominations to make the ballot. But the award committee decided to declare the story “Ineligible as the 2012 work was an audiobook.”

Well, let’s have a look at what the World Science Fiction Society’s constitution has to say about eligibility:

Section 3.2.1: Unless otherwise specified, Hugo Awards are given for work in the field of science fiction or fantasy appearing for the first time during the previous calendar year.

So far, so good–The Lady Astronaut of Mars appeared for the first time in an anthology in 2012. Let’s look at the Novelette category:

3.3.3: Best Novelette. A science fiction or fantasy story of between seven thousand five hundred (7,500) and seventeen thousand five hundred (1 7,500) words.

My word processor clocks The Lady Astronaut of Mars in at 8,035 words. Definitely a novelette.

The category rules don’t say the words must be published in print format, and nether do the general rules. They say the work must ‘appear for the first time’ in the year prior to the year in which it is nominated. Going by that, it’s pretty clear that audiobooks are eligible to be nominated in the story categories. In fact, the Hugo Awards website clearly says, in reference to e-book eligibility: “There is no requirement that a work be published on paper.”

There are these two sections of the general rules concerned with moving works from one eligible category to another:

3.2.9: The Worldcon Committee may relocate a story into a more appropriate category if it feels that it is necessary, provided that the length of the story is within the lesser of five thousand (5,000) words or twenty percent (20%) of the new category limits.

3.2.10: The Worldcon Committee may relocate a dramatic pre sentation work into a more appropriate category if it feels that it is ne cessary, provided that the length of the work is within twenty percent (20%) of the new category boundary.

But:

(1) The fact that they wrote one rule for moving stories and a separate rule for moving dramatic presentations rather suggests that they didn’t mean for stories to be moved into Dramatic Presentation, or vice versa; and more importantly:

(2) Audiobooks have previously been declared eligible in the story categories. When the Audible anthology METAtropolis came out in 2008, John Scalzi (who edited the anthology and had a story in it) was told that while the entire anthology was eligible in the Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form category, the individual stories within it were eligible in the Novella category. Including his novella, “Utere Nihil Non Extra Quiritationem Suis.”

If disqualifying her pretty-obviously-eligible work wasn’t bad enough, they decided not to give her a chance to make a case for its eligibility–or even tell her at all.

Instead, they left her to find out at a party after the awards.

That’s right: they disqualified her story from consideration for one of the genre’s most prestigious awards, and left her to find out about this on awards night, in front of a room full of people.

What, were they afraid she’d make a scene?

Even if they had done the right thing and talked to her privately, that would still leave the question: what makes Kowal’s “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” different from John Scalzi’s “Utere Nihil Non Extra Quiritationem Suis?”

Gee.

I wonder.

I’m not saying they consciously decided to disqualify Kowal’s story just because she’s a woman. I am saying that I don’t believe for one second they would have treated John Scalzi, Patrick Rothfuss, Brandon Sanderson, or any of the genre’s other well-known white men this way.

EDIT TO ADD:

Kowal has her own writeup of the incident here, including the emails she exchanged with the committee about this.

Also, based on the comments sitting in moderation, it’s time to remind folks that we have a comment policy. I specifically want to draw attention to our policy on comments that add nothing to the conversation.

Photograph of John Scalzi, by I am the Jeff

How To Be An Ally, Speaker Edition

John Scalzi is a New York Times best-selling Science Fiction writer. He’s won or been nominated for most of the genre’s top awards, and he’s the most recent former president of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. It’s fair to say he’s a sought-after guest on the SF convention circuit; he’s been a Guest of Honor several times and a Toastmaster more than once, including at the 2012 WorldCon in Chicago.

Photograph of John Scalzi, by I am the Jeff

John Scalzi, from a photo by I am the Jeff

Yesterday, he announced that going forward, he will only accept invitations to conventions that have a published harassment policy that is “clear on what is unacceptable behavior, as well as to whom those who feel harassed, or see others engaging in harassing behavior, can go to for help and action.”

We often hear from allies who are looking for things they can do to help make geek culture a safer space. If you’re somebody who speaks at conferences, this is a great way that you can leverage your power to help.

How to do it:

Scalzi has an extremely well-trafficked blog, but there’s no need to make a big public statement if you’re not comfortable doing so. All you have to do is:

  1. Only accept invitations/submit talk proposals to conferences with a clear, published, enforced anti-harassment policy, and
  2. When you decline an invitation (or decline to submit a talk), tell them why.

Step Two is key. If you just decline the invitation, the conference will have no way of knowing that there is a simple step they can take to change your mind and make their event safer and more welcoming.

So when you’re invited to speak, check the event’s website for a harassment policy. If you can’t find one, shoot them an email:

Thank you for the invitation to [event]. I’d love to attend, but I only speak at conferences with [clear, publicized] anti-harassment policies. Do you have one that I’ve missed, or would you consider implementing one? [Can you tell me how you will publicize it to attenders?]

For calls for papers or talk submission systems, do the same thing:

I’d love to submit a talk for [event], but I only speak at conferences with [clear, publicized] anti-harassment policies. Do you have one that I’ve missed, or would you consider implementing one? [Can you tell me how you will publicize it to attenders?]

If they tell you that they don’t have a policy, or if the policy they have is not adequate (“don’t be a jerk” is not an anti-harassment policy), encourage them to adopt a real policy. Point them at this template policy, which The Ada Initiative developed in collaboration with other volunteers. It can be adapted to suit most technical, literary, gaming, or media conferences. The introduction includes a concise argument for why conferences should adopt clear policies:

Why have an official anti-harassment policy for your conference? First, it is necessary (unfortunately). Harassment at conferences is incredibly common – for example, see this timeline of sexist incidents in geek communities. Second, it sets expectations for behavior at the conference. Simply having an anti-harassment policy can prevent harassment all by itself. Third, it encourages people to attend who have had bad experiences at other conferences. Finally, it gives conference staff instructions on how to handle harassment quickly, with the minimum amount of disruption or bad press for your conference.

If they choose not to adopt and publicize a clear policy with a reporting process, decline their invitation to speak or submit a talk.

Other Ways To Encourage Conferences To Adopt Policies:

The Geek Feminism Wiki has a list of other actions you can take to encourage conferences to adopt anti-harassment policies. Among them:

  1. Privately request a policy by directly contacting the conference organizers, and their parent organization if there is one (some conferences are run by a non-profit parent body, for example).
  2. Publicly request a policy by blogging, tweeting, or similar.
  3. Do not attend conferences without a policy, and let them know of your decision.
  4. Privately or publicly thank conferences that do adopt a policy (and their parent body, if any).
  5. Help publicize conferences that do have a policy.
  6. Preferentially attend conferences with a policy and let them know that you did so.
  7. Refuse to volunteer for or run events that benefit a conference unless it has a policy.

Other Things You Can Do:

  1. Make A Public Personal Pledge to not engage in harassment and to speak up when you see harassment, as sci-fi author Jim C. Hines did, and/or to personally back up targets of harassment, as Mary Robinette Kowal has done.
  2. Refuse To Share A Stage With Jerks. If you’re invited to speak at a conference where another speaker is a known harasser, misogynist, racist, heterosexist, cis-sexist, or other brand of jerk, refuse the invitation, and tell them why:

    I’d love to speak at [event], but I see that you’ve invited [jerk] to be your [Guest of Honor/Keynote/etc]. [Jerk] has done/said [awful things they've done/said][, and to my knowledge, they have not accepted responsibility, nor have they made a public commitment to behave better in the future]. I’m not comfortable [speaking at conferences with them/sitting on a panel with them/toasting them/etc], because I don’t want people thinking I endorse their behavior.

  3. Support Those Who Choose To Speak Out. Last week, Elise Matthesen chose to speak out about being harassed at a conference, and her experience with reporting the harasser. Her post on the subject appeared on the blogs of several well-known SF writers, including Mary Robinette Kowal, Jim C. Hines, Seanan McGuire, Brandon Sanderson, Chuck Wendig, and John Scalzi (hat tip to Mary Robinette Kowal for listing the cross-posters on her blog. More information is available on the Geek Feminism Wiki). These writers not only lent Matthesen their platform and speaking trumpet; they also took on the work of moderating the comments her post generated. Offering to host a post on your own blog and moderate the comments is an extremely valuable service you can offer to people who want to tell personal stories about harassment or related issues.
  4. Name Harassers. Many victims of harassment and assault do not feel safe publicly naming and shaming their harassers/attackers. Those that do name names risk personal, professional, and legal reprisals for doing so. If you have enough personal power within a community that you feel you can safely name a harasser, and if you can do so without outing a victim or betraying a victim’s confidence, consider speaking up. People who are vulnerable to harassment are often forced to rely on a grape-vine of backchannel warnings about serial offenders. This system is opaque, ad-hoc, poorly-documented, and it doesn’t help people who aren’t already tapped into a network that can pass the warnings on. Author K. Tempest Bradford reports that Matthesen’s harasser’s employer has been aware of his behavior for years. There have been previous complaints about it stretching back to at least 2002. After Matthesen came forward last week, Segrid Ellis and Mary Robinette Kowal both came forward to name him. This will make it much easier to hold him (and spaces that tolerate his behavior) accountable going forward.

This is not an exhaustive list, of course. There are a hundred big and small ways that you can fight bad behavior in geek spaces–many of which don’t depend on being powerful or famous.

On Twitter, Scalzi said about his new policy: “I didn’t make that harassment statement for the cookies, incidentally. I did it because I don’t want my friends [bleep]ing harassed.” Taking any of these suggested steps may not earn you any cookies, but if you’re in a position to do them, they can help make a real, lasting difference that makes geek communities more safe and welcoming for everyone.

Book Club: A Geek Feminist bounces off Batgirl Volume 1: The Darkest Reflection

I’ll be the first to admit that my taste in superheroism runs to the ultra-problematized, not to say outright subversive: I prefer Faith to Buffy, Grant Morrison’s Crazy Jane to Alan Moore’s Silk Spectre, Tony Stark to Bruce Wayne. As I see it, superpowers, like sex, are invariably more or less heavy-handed metaphors for something else. In Buffy and X-Men it’s puberty and burgeoning sexuality. In Doom Patrol, which meant the world to me in my twenties, it’s the marked body, simultaneously mortal and strong.

Superpowers repel me when they are used to single some folks out for special merit at the expense of everyone else. In The Incredibles Dash complains that if everyone is special, no one is. That’s exactly right, kiddo. My deepest political conviction is that everyone is extraordinary and superpowered and jewelled in their most secret inner recesses; everyone; no one is uniquely deserving of special treatment. Business Class is swankier, yes, but you must pay.

Hence my issues. In the Batman canon, superpowers are equated with effectively unlimited money and status. Bruce Wayne’s super secrets are his butler, his vast inheritance and his dungeon full of high-tech toys. As a person who has had to sit through a working lunch listening to a CEO brag about his collection of light aircraft, I find it hard to convey the extent to which this fills me with bored loathing. There’s nothing admirable about being a person like that. At least Tony Stark has shrapnel in his heart, and drinks.

At least it costs him. I’m very fond of that line of Tony’s from The Avengers: “This little circle of light. It’s part of me now, not just armor. It’s a… terrible privilege.” I like that he owns his privilege and its horrors. I like that it’s his way of reaching out to Bruce Banner, whose privileges are equally appalling. I have a lot of privilege that I want to use as a ploughshare, not a sword; the rocket that launched Curiosity to Mars, not an ICBM. Tony’s evolution from arms dealer to clean tech mogul is a useful myth in this way. Bruce Wayne’s Gothic manpain… isn’t.

All of which might explain, at least in part, why the Gail Simone Batgirl left me cold. Canonical Barbara Gordon is problematic in what for me are all the wrong ways. She’s the Police Commissioner’s daughter and the rich dude’s protege. She’s literally the tool of the patriarchy. She uses a wheelchair, yes, and then she’s miraculously healed. I appreciate that Simone lampshades this, most explicitly with her villain Mirror, who embodies the rage of the unlucky towards the lucky.

But Mirror is a villain, and Bruce Wayne, property developer, is a hero, whose acknowledgement of Barbara as Batgirl is the affirmation she needs. All her power is channeled into support for the police, and for capitalism. The arc of the narrative reverts towards the status quo. I am with Doctor Horrible in thinking that the status is not quo.

I’m sorry, but if Donald Trump praised me in any way, I would have to take a long hard look at my life and make some radical changes.

To be clear, I blame Simone for none of this. I think these are structural flaws in the Bat-canon, which tends Ayn Rand-wards and is therefore Not For Me.

I liked Barbara’s roommate, Alysia Yeoh. Alysia tapes Barbara’s cracked ribs and tells her:

If someone’s hurting you, I’m not going to sit by and watch it go on. I am not that person, are we clear?

…and then she makes laksa. I’d rather have read a whole book about her.

What am I missing? Help a Geek Feminist out.

Dear male allies: your sexism looks a bit like my racism

Octavia Butler

Would you indulge me in a little geeking out about intersectionality? Why, thanks. Hi, I’m Yatima and I’m a racist.

I don’t mean to be, I’m working really hard to stop it and God knows it horrifies me every time I hear something racist come out of my mouth. When I wake at 4am for a bout of self-loathing, those are among the top moments I replay, over and over. I guess you could say I am a person who sometimes says racist things but seriously? Let’s not split hairs.

Trouble is, as a white, able-bodied, educated, employed, cis, married, middle-class person, I am very, very privileged. If it weren’t for the fact that I’m a woman, I would probably never have experienced any kind of oppression based on aspects of myself that I can’t change.

But I have experienced gender discrimination, and it has irked the hell out of me, to put it mildly, and so I work for change. Fine. It took me an embarrassingly long time to take the next logical step, which is to understand that if it hurts to be singled out because you’re a woman, it hurts even more to be singled out because (say) you are a woman of color. Or a woman with a disability. Or a working-class woman. And so forth.

It’s relatively easy for me to advocate for feminist change because I can – in Ursula Le Guin’s words – offer up my experience as my wisdom. My testimony is relevant, because I am a woman. It turns out to be much harder for me to advocate for race or ability or class issues, because oftentimes I just don’t know what these issues are. My racism, and my other *isms, are a function of (among other things) my ignorance. Privilege conceals from me the experiences of not-having-privilege.

I was at about this point when Racefail erupted all over the science-fiction-blogosphere: just barely smart enough to notice that some of the white participants in the discussion were unintentionally making things worse, and to try to figure out why. That curiosity led me in turn to the 50 books by People of Color community. It’s a Livejournal comm that challenges participants to read 50 books – any 50 books – that are written by, well, people of color. And then review them. Or not. (It’s pretty mellow.)

While I didn’t finish the 50 books challenge – I think I got to the high thirties before I stopped counting (ooh, it was 45! go me!) – it was one of the best experiences of my intellectual life (says the woman with a Master’s degree and a great job in research.) For the first time, I read Doreen Baingana, Larissa Behrendt, Octavia Butler, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Iris Chang, Samuel R. Delany, Edwige Danticat, Anita Heiss, Mei Ling Hopgood, Nora K. Jemisin, Angela Johnson, Jamaica Kincade, Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama, Sanjay Patel, Alex Sanchez and Jane Jeong Trenka. It was…

It was great. It changed the way I read, permanently, for the better. I no longer feel satisfied on a diet of pure Western canon.

I began to see what I was missing. I began to see some of the things the Western canon chronically leaves out and overlooks. I began to see some of the ways in which I, as an educated white middle class person, had been socialized and conditioned to speak up and interpret and analyze and assume that my (uninformed) opinion was really really interesting to other people. I began to see the ways in which my opinion was, perhaps, not.

This, to be honest, remains to this day my best strategy for fighting my own racism, and all the other prejudices that I have unthinkingly imbibed along with my privileges. I am learning to listen. I am learning to seek out other voices – not only in books but in film, music, graphic novels, journalism and blogs. I am learning to feel incomplete without them.

There’s still a time and a place for me to express my opinion on issues around race and ability and class, and it’s this: I get to be the one who says to another white person: “That was a really racist thing to say.” Or to another able-bodied person: “We need to think about improving access for disabled people.”

I don’t get to be the one who tells people of color or disabled people How It Is.

Here’s what I want to tell you, dear male allies. It is such a relief. Listening to other peoples’ voices? Is incredibly moving, and humbling, and endlessly interesting. Shutting the hell up while I do it? God, how I love the sound of not-my-own-voice. Going into battle against racists and so forth? So much easier, now that I have a faint clue what’s actually going on.

And that’s all I have to say. If you would like to know more about how women think, listen to them. Listen to Regina Spektor and Meshell Ngedeocello and Diamanda Galas. Read Madeleine Albright and Barbara Tuchman and Leslie Chang and Katherine Boo and for God’s sake, read Octavia Butler, she is seriously so completely amazing.

Come and join the Geek Feminism Book Club. We’re going to have fun.

amongothers

Quick Hit: Women Win Nebulas!

It is so splendid when excellent people are recognized for their excellence! It’s delightful that Octavia Butler won a posthumous Solstice Award and that Connie Willis was given the Damon Knight Grand Master Award. And! I am personally over the moon that Jo Walton’s Among Others won the 2011 Nebula.

I loved this book so very much and if I haven’t already forced it into your hands, you are to imagine me doing it now: this is a geek feminist coming-of-age novel, and it is full of wonders.

Oh-The-Humanities_onshirt

Re-post: Geekery and the humanities

During the December/January slowdown, Geek Feminism is re-publishing some of our highlights from earlier in the year. This post originally appeared on July 13, 2011.

Cross posted at From Austin to A&M.

I was at ApolloCon in Houston this year, and am really glad I went. I was on a couple of panels, met some really nice people, and got to pontificate about geek culture and science fiction for a few days. A couple of things really got under my skin (I think this may be my fate at every con I go to), but the one that made me the saddest happened at the Geek Girls in Popular Culture panel, which I was a part of. During our closing remarks, I noted that we seem to only be including women in the science/tech/math fields when we talked about “geek girls” and this is, I think, a real problem. As a humanities-based geek myself, it made me feel like I was being left out, but also it seems to include the assumption that the STEM fields are simply better than the humanities, and everyone would be better off if all geeks were in those fields. I worded it carefully, because I didn’t want it to sound like an accusation, and so it came out much more “Dude, I’m a geek too, and it hurts my feelings when everyone acts like I should be a computer nerd to count as one.” The answer I got shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. One of the panelists, and at least two audience members chimed in with, “Well, the only reason you’re in the humanities is because you’ve been discouraged from being in STEM.”

I was kind of stunned by that answer, in part because I had just told this group of people that I am making the humanities my career, and their response was to basically argue that it’s worthless, or at least worth less. So I didn’t say anything for a second, trying to come up with an answer that wasn’t, “Fuck you. The majority of my work lately has been determining the values of this motherfucking subculture right here, and you are the subjects of that work. It doesn’t make any sense for you to tell me that that isn’t worthwhile.” I had told these people that I do fan studies, and as fans, their response is tell me that I only chose my field because I had been discouraged from doing more important work? Seriously.

Someone on the panel did backtrack a little, saying “well, we should be encouraging everyone to be in the fields they enjoy and are good at, whatever that may be,” but there’s still this…niggling. Because this is not the first place in geek culture I have seen a strong preference for STEM over the humanities, and it’s not the first place I’ve seen it outright said that the former is better than the latter, especially for women. And that’s precisely what that argument is; by saying that I’m only in the humanities because everyone knows girls are bad at STEM, they are arguing that all things being equal, every girl (or at least geek girl) would choose STEM. Because, you know, it’s better. Maybe the reason we like to think this is that geeks tend to buy hook, line, and sinker the idea that logic is better than emotion and objectivity is better than subjectivity. And we associate humanities with the latter and the sciences/math with the former. But subjectivity and emotion are not poison and they are not invalid. If you think an argument without emotion is the best kind of argument, go preach eating babies to the poor. If you think that subjective experiences don’t matter, then I guess we can all stop listening to the marginalized people of the world talking about discrimination in their lives. Because “objective” more often than not just means the words of white, hetero, cis men, whose experiences are figured as neutral and who we seem to think are unaffected by their sex, race, class, sexuality, etc.

I’m not claiming that every individual geek is consciously a logic-worshipping dude who hates gross lady feelings. But this logic worship is something that flutters just under the surface of geek culture, and manifests in seemingly harmless statements like those made at this panel. In this culture, masculinity is logic and science and femininity is emotion and feeling, and one is clearly superior to the other. Look at the show Big Bang Theory as an example. while Leonard is our hero, he is not the star of this show; Sheldon is. And Sheldon, let’s be honest, is kind of a dick. He has no regard for other people and doesn’t think anyone is as important as himself. But he’s smart, and super logical, and thus we like him. We’re supposed to like him, even as we roll our eyes at him, because he may be bad at social situations but at least he is objective! It doesn’t even seem to occur to most geek viewers that, by most measures, Sheldon is a terrible person. Because that doesn’t matter as much as his adherence to an objective, logical worldview. The comparison of him to Spock indicates, I think, another geek hero who represents this worship of logical thinking over emotional intelligence; while Spock’s character development mostly consists of him re-valuing emotion, most fans seem to see him as awesome because he appears to escape the emotion-ridden, subjectively experienced life that we must live through.

I think one of the reasons this logic worship is just under the surface of geek communities, rather than explicit, is because fan communities are actually all about personal experiences (with the text, with each other), even when they pretend not to be. This is a culture in which people dress up as characters, role-play as characters, write stories about characters, and thus relate the text to themselves and their lives. We get emotionally invested in our games, in our TV shows, in our movies, and in our books, because that’s what fans do. So perhaps this obsession with science and logic is more an anxiety than anything else; maybe fans overcompensate for what they know is their own deeply personal emotional engagement with a text.

Now, I’m not anti-logic or anti-science; I do think these things are valuable, but they can only be convincing and powerful when they take into account emotion and the humanities (for lack of a better term). None of these things work best on their own. Which brings me to my real argument: the idea that the humanities are less important than STEM is an idea that geeks need to drop, because the humanities are constitutive to geek culture, just as much as science, technology, and math are.

The idea that the humanities is not important to geek cultures is patently ridiculous; most of the time geek fan cultures are based on books or TV shows (you know, things written by writers and performed by actors, who are by definition in “the arts”); and game designers and writers are likely to have studied literature and the arts to prepare for their jobs, not just programming and computer science. The study of the King Arthur myth, Tolkien, fantasy, and history are not part of physics or chemistry; they are part of the humanities. Obviously, science and math and computers are all important parts of geek culture, but so is literature and history and the arts.

In fact, geek culture is one of those places that the STEM fields and the humanities have blended in a significant and sort of beautiful way; this is the culture in which scientists and philosophers can and do have meaningful conversations, in which literature and science come together in a novel, in which the engineer and the literary critic talk for hours on end at a convention, in which art and cyborgs are not at all at odds. This is the place where these two “opposites” meet and mingle and blend, and for our communities to really shine, we need to get rid of this underlying belief that one is better than the other.

So let’s stop ragging on the arts and humanities, and stop dismissing geeks who do them as limited or stifled. Some of us are drawn to the humanities and arts because of what they do in our culture and can do for our culture, because we recognize that they are important in geek culture and in our world. I am not a literary critic because I couldn’t think of anything more worthy to do. And I don’t think being one makes me less of a geek than anyone else.

Anne McCaffrey

In memory of Anne McCaffrey

Anne McCaffrey

We lost Anne McCaffrey this week, to stroke. Yonmei remembered her gloriously at FeministSF (and if you don’t know her inspiration, reading that makes it even better.)

I was nine years old when my frenemy Claudia (precociously elegant with her hair in a glossy pageboy) read aloud to me: “Lessa woke, cold.” Dragonflight was my first contraband, and F’lar one of my first crushes. In a corner of the high school playground, determinedly ignored by the kids with friends, I was comforted by my flight of fire lizards, or hurtling through space as an embodied ship. When my text adventures in CPM/BASIC actually executed, it was like the black crystal picking up and amplifying my voice. I was young enough to extract maximum escapist value from McCaffrey’s worlds before her writing started to pall.

I hadn’t thought of her in years when I chuckled over Liz’s fierce and righteous takedown of gender (and race and disability) politics on Pern. McCaffrey was a product of her time, no question, and not the worst by any means. Ursula Le Guin works strenuously to re-examine and correct her older work, and with mixed success, but that’s part of what makes Ursula Le Guin so very full of awesome. We can’t expect it of every writer. Now, as we mourn McCaffrey, we have to find some way to honor both the worlds she gave us and the ground we’ve covered since.

Our foremothers fail in myriad ways, and we will doubtless look like hypocritical assholes to future generations too. Re-examining assumptions is good and important work (and might help us avoid our own worst excesses.) But without foremothers like McCaffrey – and the other writers of sexy, problematic contraband, like Marion Zimmer Bradley and Jean Auel – we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.

Thank you, dragon lady, for teaching us to sing.

Slave Leias

“Geek girls” and the problem of self-objectification

UPDATE: I have written a better and more developed version of this article as a presentation for the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association conference in 2012. You can read the updated version of this article here. (Also, hello WisCon 36 attendees! I wish I was there!)

Cross-posted at From Austin to A&M.

There is a difficult conversation to be had about self-objectifying geeks. (I’m looking at you, slave Leias.) And while feminist geeks have been addressing this issue for a while now, it seems that more mainstream geek culture has caught up with us. Comic-Con actually had a panel this year called “Oh, You Sexy Geek!,” in which they were to discuss the implications of sexy women in geek culture. From the online program:

Does displaying the sexiness of fangirls benefit or demean them? When geek girls show off, are they liberating themselves or pandering to men? Do some “fake fangirls” blend sex appeal with nerdiness just to appeal to the growing geek/nerd market, or is that question itself unfair? And what’s up with all the Slave Leias?

I’ve been researching and thinking about cosplay for a while now, and one of the most distressing trends I’ve been grappling with is how women will choose characters, costumes, or costume constructions based on how “sexy” the costume will appear on them. This is not just a cosplay problem, but a geek problem. And until we start having an intelligent conversation about it (preferably a conversation that starts with the assumption that it is a problem), it’s not one that geek communities will ever be rid of. (A little unsurprisingly, the Comic-Con panel was apparently sort of terrible. We’ll get to that in a minute.)

As I’ve argued before, the sexisms that persist in geek communities are not special. They are not separable and inherently different from sexist thoughts and behaviors in the”real world.” They are part and parcel of regular ole sexism, not a special geek dude brand invented outside of patriarchy. So with that in mind, it’s important to remember that the sexualization of women is something that women and men consume and internalize all over the place. Though it does seem to be particularly bad in geek media. Video games, comics, science fiction, fantasy: these media forms are often at fault for promoting unrealistic (and, pretty regularly, physically impossible) standards of beauty. They fashion their female heroines and villains as sexy objects to be consumed, unlike their male counterparts.

As I said to Amanda Hess last year, being the sexy object is one of the places where geek women can find acceptance in their communities. From the interview:

Too often, women in geek cultures are only welcomed if they are decoration, sexy versions of the things geek men love, not equal participants or fellow fans. Forever Geek […], for example, has, in just the past two months, posted with glee about female models naked except for high heels and stormtrooper helmets gracing skateboards, a car wash in which women dressed in sexy Princess Leia costumes washed cars, and Star Wars corsets. Geek communities love women, as long as their members don’t have to think of those women as people.

When I was on the “Geek Girls in Popular Culture” panel at ApolloCon, we talked about this nonsense for quite a while, because, as a couple of the panelists pointed out, it seems like a geek woman can only get attention if she’s conventionally beautiful and willing to objectify herself. When geek women choose to self-objectify at geek events, they are not doing so in a vacuum. So while I think it’s possible that some of them are trying to feel empowered in their sexuality, and reclaim their femininity, they cannot escape the fact that this is a culture that embraces female fans almost exclusively as sexy objects. In other words, a feminist can wear high heels, but she shouldn’t lie to herself about what that means.

The problem then, isn’t that women are objectifying themselves. That’s like holding a panel asking if women are liberating themselves or pandering to men for wearing mascara/high heels/Spanx/bras, curling or straightening their hair, or shaving their legs and underarms. Because it’s easy to blame women, right? It’s easy to say that if women don’t want to be objectified, they shouldn’t dress sexy or do the beauty work asked of them.

And it’s easy to get angry at Team Unicorn for so obviously pandering to the male gaze and framing themselves as sex objects for male geeks. It’s easy to hate Olivia Munn and point to her as everything that is wrong with geek women or geek culture. It’s easy to roll your eyes at the ubiquitous sexy cosplayers, and blame them for the objectification of women in geek cultures.

But the actions of women are not the cause of their objectification. Women have a lot of good reasons to perform beauty work and to dress sexy, especially in the sexist cultures represented at your average con. Women aren’t the problem, whether they crossplay and eschew femininity altogether or they pull out the sexy Leia costume. The problem is that women who dress sexy, who frame themselves as sex objects, are rewarded by geek culture for doing so. They get attention, approval, and recognition from the culture when they dress as sexy Leia (or any sexy geek thing). They have pictures taken of them at cons, and they get posted and reposted on the internet. They are recognized as geeks (and generally as somewhat authentic geeks, even if they aren’t talked about that way) and welcomed into the community (maybe not as full members, but at least as desirable). There’s nothing wrong with wanting attention and approval in one’s community. What cosplayer and geek wouldn’t want those things? What female geek doesn’t want to be welcomed into the community with enthusiasm and excitement (instead of derided as a harpy feminist or annoying squeeing fangirl)? The problem, then, isn’t what women do, but a culture in which the only way that women can be recognized as a desirable part of the culture is when they participate by making themselves consumable sexy objects for geek men.

Slave Leias

A group of slave Leia cosplayers gather at Comic-Con.

The panel at Comic-Con was framed poorly, and perhaps that’s why it turned into a goddamn mess, with panelists suggesting the women criticizing sexy cosplayers were “just jealous,” one panelist arguing the women are all a bunch of bitches, another claiming”I can’t help it that some of the characters I like to cosplay are scantily clad,” and the only male panelist showing up 5 minutes before the panel ended and making an inappropriate sexual joke (synopsis from Feminist Fatale). Well, one of the reasons. Another reason is probably that geek cultures tend to think we’re beyond feminism, and Suzanne Scott claims that the panel

devolved into a postfeminist panel, in which feminism was invoked and then discarded as no longer necessary (or too “old fashioned,” or some form of buzzkillery we need to”get over”).

This is unsurprising, if disappointing. Because geek cultures often think of themselves as countercultural, they dont usually believe they are tainted by the sexism, racism, ableism, ageism, ad naseum that infect popular culture. And there are entire blogs that prove that nonsense untrue.

This whole conversation needs to change focus. Individual geeks and cosplayers have their own reasons for dressing as they do or presenting themselves as they do. Those reasons can indeed involve their thinking that dressing as sexy Leia is empowering, for whatever reason. And we shouldnt be dismissing those reasons. But the trend of sexy geek cosplaying, the trend of geek women objectifying and sexualizing themselves, that a whole ‘nother ballgame. We need to be talking about this as a problem of our culture, not a problem that women bring upon themselves.

RELATED UPDATE: I just discovered the Fashionably Geek blog, and what. the. fuck:

Lady Chewbacca costume

Billed as a female Chewbacca costume, but it just looks like another sexy Halloween costume. A conventionally pretty white lady sports a furry bra, mini skirt, and cuffs on her wrists and lower legs.

ANOTHER UPDATE: I’m not too comfortable with how much my post (and now the comments) are hyper-focusing on slave Leia cosplayers. This is about sexy cosplayers of all stripes, including ones like the above, which alter a costume to make it sexy. Please keep in mind that we are talking about a large group of cosplayers, not just the slave Leias.

Wall of Spam, by freezelight on Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

More horrible than your worst linkspam (18th July, 2011)

  • Black and WTF: photographs of suffragettes. In 1912, Scotland Yard detectives bought their first camera to covertly photograph suffragettes.
  • A bit of an oldie, but relevant to our recent Google+ discussions: Falsehoods Programmers Believe About Names: So, as a public service, I’m going to list assumptions your systems probably make about names. All of these assumptions are wrong. Try to make less of them next time you write a system which touches names.
  • Great 101 comment from karenm77 about why it was creepy to proposition Rebecca Watson at 4am in an elevator. (Via tigtog.) Yeah, in case you missed it.
  • Sheryl Sandberg & Male-Dominated Silicon Valley: an interview with Facebook’s COO. You can’t come [into space], [Sandberg's son] said. I’ve already invited my sister, and there’s only one girl in space. At first, Sandberg laughed. And then it dawned on her that there is only one woman in these movies.
  • Debunking the Top 5 Myths About Lady Scientists: So, people of the universe, when I tell you that I am a scientist, the only conclusion you should draw is that I like science.  Not what I look like or how I dress.  Not what I like to do in my free time.  Not how I interact with other people.  And real world, get used to me because I am your average scientist and I am not at all who you try to say I am.
  • A linkspam of a linkspam: Meanwhile, Back in SFland: While I was off enjoying the company of several thousand women (and an increasing number of men, as Sharon Sala graciously noted while accepting her lifetime achievement award) in Romanceland, the gender wars seem to have broken out in SFland again.
  • You can’t fight sexism with sexism: So, please, before you write about getting women into the game industry, first check and make sure that you’re not perpetuating the very attitudes you’re arguing against before you publish.
  • Are the Open Data Warriors Fighting for Robin Hood or the Sheriff?: Some Reflections on OKCon 2011 and the Emerging Data Divide: Cogent criticism of the demographics of the open-data movement.

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious, freelish.us or pinboard.in or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Oh-The-Humanities_onshirt

Geekery and the humanities

Cross posted at From Austin to A&M.

I was at ApolloCon in Houston this year, and am really glad I went. I was on a couple of panels, met some really nice people, and got to pontificate about geek culture and science fiction for a few days. A couple of things really got under my skin (I think this may be my fate at every con I go to), but the one that made me the saddest happened at the Geek Girls in Popular Culture panel, which I was a part of. During our closing remarks, I noted that we seem to only be including women in the science/tech/math fields when we talked about “geek girls” and this is, I think, a real problem. As a humanities-based geek myself, it made me feel like I was being left out, but also it seems to include the assumption that the STEM fields are simply better than the humanities, and everyone would be better off if all geeks were in those fields. I worded it carefully, because I didn’t want it to sound like an accusation, and so it came out much more “Dude, I’m a geek too, and it hurts my feelings when everyone acts like I should be a computer nerd to count as one.” The answer I got shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. One of the panelists, and at least two audience members chimed in with, “Well, the only reason you’re in the humanities is because you’ve been discouraged from being in STEM.”

I was kind of stunned by that answer, in part because I had just told this group of people that I am making the humanities my career, and their response was to basically argue that it’s worthless, or at least worth less. So I didn’t say anything for a second, trying to come up with an answer that wasn’t, “Fuck you. The majority of my work lately has been determining the values of this motherfucking subculture right here, and you are the subjects of that work. It doesn’t make any sense for you to tell me that that isn’t worthwhile.” I had told these people that I do fan studies, and as fans, their response is tell me that I only chose my field because I had been discouraged from doing more important work? Seriously.

Someone on the panel did backtrack a little, saying “well, we should be encouraging everyone to be in the fields they enjoy and are good at, whatever that may be,” but there’s still this…niggling. Because this is not the first place in geek culture I have seen a strong preference for STEM over the humanities, and it’s not the first place I’ve seen it outright said that the former is better than the latter, especially for women. And that’s precisely what that argument is; by saying that I’m only in the humanities because everyone knows girls are bad at STEM, they are arguing that all things being equal, every girl (or at least geek girl) would choose STEM. Because, you know, it’s better. Maybe the reason we like to think this is that geeks tend to buy hook, line, and sinker the idea that logic is better than emotion and objectivity is better than subjectivity. And we associate humanities with the latter and the sciences/math with the former. But subjectivity and emotion are not poison and they are not invalid. If you think an argument without emotion is the best kind of argument, go preach eating babies to the poor. If you think that subjective experiences don’t matter, then I guess we can all stop listening to the marginalized people of the world talking about discrimination in their lives. Because “objective” more often than not just means the words of white, hetero, cis men, whose experiences are figured as neutral and who we seem to think are unaffected by their sex, race, class, sexuality, etc.

I’m not claiming that every individual geek is consciously a logic-worshipping dude who hates gross lady feelings. But this logic worship is something that flutters just under the surface of geek culture, and manifests in seemingly harmless statements like those made at this panel. In this culture, masculinity is logic and science and femininity is emotion and feeling, and one is clearly superior to the other. Look at the show Big Bang Theory as an example. while Leonard is our hero, he is not the star of this show; Sheldon is. And Sheldon, let’s be honest, is kind of a dick. He has no regard for other people and doesn’t think anyone is as important as himself. But he’s smart, and super logical, and thus we like him. We’re supposed to like him, even as we roll our eyes at him, because he may be bad at social situations but at least he is objective! It doesn’t even seem to occur to most geek viewers that, by most measures, Sheldon is a terrible person. Because that doesn’t matter as much as his adherence to an objective, logical worldview. The comparison of him to Spock indicates, I think, another geek hero who represents this worship of logical thinking over emotional intelligence; while Spock’s character development mostly consists of him re-valuing emotion, most fans seem to see him as awesome because he appears to escape the emotion-ridden, subjectively experienced life that we must live through.

I think one of the reasons this logic worship is just under the surface of geek communities, rather than explicit, is because fan communities are actually all about personal experiences (with the text, with each other), even when they pretend not to be. This is a culture in which people dress up as characters, role-play as characters, write stories about characters, and thus relate the text to themselves and their lives. We get emotionally invested in our games, in our TV shows, in our movies, and in our books, because that’s what fans do. So perhaps this obsession with science and logic is more an anxiety than anything else; maybe fans overcompensate for what they know is their own deeply personal emotional engagement with a text.

Now, I’m not anti-logic or anti-science; I do think these things are valuable, but they can only be convincing and powerful when they take into account emotion and the humanities (for lack of a better term). None of these things work best on their own. Which brings me to my real argument: the idea that the humanities are less important than STEM is an idea that geeks need to drop, because the humanities are constitutive to geek culture, just as much as science, technology, and math are.

The idea that the humanities is not important to geek cultures is patently ridiculous; most of the time geek fan cultures are based on books or TV shows (you know, things written by writers and performed by actors, who are by definition in “the arts”); and game designers and writers are likely to have studied literature and the arts to prepare for their jobs, not just programming and computer science. The study of the King Arthur myth, Tolkien, fantasy, and history are not part of physics or chemistry; they are part of the humanities. Obviously, science and math and computers are all important parts of geek culture, but so is literature and history and the arts.

In fact, geek culture is one of those places that the STEM fields and the humanities have blended in a significant and sort of beautiful way; this is the culture in which scientists and philosophers can and do have meaningful conversations, in which literature and science come together in a novel, in which the engineer and the literary critic talk for hours on end at a convention, in which art and cyborgs are not at all at odds. This is the place where these two “opposites” meet and mingle and blend, and for our communities to really shine, we need to get rid of this underlying belief that one is better than the other.

So let’s stop ragging on the arts and humanities, and stop dismissing geeks who do them as limited or stifled. Some of us are drawn to the humanities and arts because of what they do in our culture and can do for our culture, because we recognize that they are important in geek culture and in our world. I am not a literary critic because I couldn’t think of anything more worthy to do. And I don’t think being one makes me less of a geek than anyone else.