Tag Archives: SF fandom

Analyzing How “Hamilton” Appeals to Geek Feminists

“History is the trade secret of science fiction” — that quote’s attributed to me, but I think I got it from Asimov.

Ken MacLeod, “Working the Wet End” interview, The Human Front Plus…, 2013, PM Press

For the past several weeks I’ve listened several times to the cast recording of the new Broadway musical Hamilton, and I’m only one of many; my circles of fandom have fallen in love with it and it’s the most-requested and most-offered fandom in this year’s Yuletide fanfic exchange. I’m quickly summing up some thoughts not just on what makes Hamilton good, but what makes it so astonishingly appealing to my circle of feminist friends who also adore reading speculative fiction, and who don’t generally find their tastes running to Broadway musicals.
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Donate and register now to vote in OTW and SF3 elections

If you care about the parent nonprofit organizations of Archive of Our Own and WisCon, you might want to vote in their upcoming elections, and registration deadlines are coming up fast – in one case, today.

The Organization for Transformative Works registration deadline is the end of today, October 6, 2015. (To become a voting member, you must have donated at least USD$10 within the last year.) I believe the deadline is “11:59pm in your timezone” or “11:59pm Eastern Time in the US” since I just donated here in New York City and my receipt is dated October 6th around 8:40pm. Edited 1:52am UTC to add: The deadline is 2am UTC, or, in about 8 minutes.

Voting in the upcoming election for OTW’s Board takes place November 6-November 9. OTW supports the journal Transformative Works and Cultures, the Archive of Our Own fanwork archive, legal advocacy, the Fanlore wiki, and related activities. Here’s an unofficial roundup of how and why to vote, from an unofficial Tumblr following the election.

The Society for the Furtherance and Study of Fantasy and Science Fiction, or SF3, is the nonprofit parent org for the annual feminist scifi convention WisCon (which is nearly 40 years old). SF3’s annual meeting is scheduled for Sunday, October 18, 2015, at 11:30am (US Central time; link to time converter). Members can attend in person or via phone. The annual meeting includes an election to fill open officer positions and votes on proposed bylaw revisions and grant requests. To vote at the annual meeting, you must be an SF3 member by the time the meeting starts. SF3 offers three annual membership tiers, ranging from USD$9 to USD$24.

For both organizations, if you will not be able to cast your votes during the voting period, you can designate a proxy to vote on your behalf (SF3, OTW).

Apologies for being pretty late in signal-boosting this.

I’ve donated and registered to become a member of both organizations, and will be interested in learning more so I can be an informed voter!

What if free and open source software were more like fandom?

This is the second of a two-part post about feminism and the philosophies and vocabularies of “open stuff” (fandom, open source, etc.). Part I is at Crooked Timber, here, and I suggest you read that first.

Recently I was thinking about abstractions we open source software folks might borrow from fandom, particularly the online world of fan fiction and fanvids. I mean, I am already a rather fannish sort of open sourcer — witness when I started a love meme, a.k.a. an appreciation thread, on the MediaWiki developers’ mailing list. But I hadn’t, until recently, taken a systematic look at what models we might be able to translate into the FLOSS world. And sometimes we can more clearly see our own skeletons, and our muscles and weaknesses, by comparison.

Affirmational and transformational

While arguing in December that the adjectives “fan” and “political” don’t contradict each other, I said:

I think calling them fanwork/fanvids is a reasonable way to honor fandom’s both transformative and affirmational heritage

I got that phrasing (“affirmational/transformational”) from RaceFail, which is a word for many interconnected conversations about racism, cultural appropriation, discourse, and fandom that happened in early 2009. (In “Feminist Point of View: A Geek Feminism Retrospective”, Skud discussed how RaceFail influenced the DNA of Geek Feminism (see slide 15).) RaceFail included several discussions that X-rayed fandom and developed new models for understanding it. (And I do mean “discussions” — in many of the Dreamwidth links I’m about to mention, the bulk of thought happens in the comments.)

obsession_inc, in a RaceFail discussion, articulated the difference between “affirmational” and “transformational” fandom. Do you bask in canon, relaxing in the security of a hierarchy, or do you use it, without a clear answer about Who’s In Charge?

When we use these terms we’re talking about different modes: different approaches to source texts, to communities, to the Web, to the mass media industries, and to each other. It’s not just about whether you’re into pages of words or audio/video, and it’s not necessarily generational either:

So when I see the assertion that as a group, print-oriented old time fans don’t know how to deal with extensive cross-linked multi-threaded fast-paced discussion, all I can do is cough and mutter “bullshit”.

We have a long-standing heritage of transformational fandom — sometimes it surprises fans to know just how long we’ve been making fanvids, for instance. (What other heritages do I have that I don’t know enough about?)

And I’m mulling over what bits of FLOSS culture feel affirmational to me (e.g., deference to celebrities like Linus Torvalds) or transformational (e.g., the Open Source Bridge session selection process, where everyone can see each other’s proposals and favstar what they like). I’d love to hear more thoughts in the comments.

Expectations around socializing and bug reports

I reread the post and the hundreds of comments at oliviacirce’s “Admitting Impediments: Post-WisCon Posts, Part I, or, That Post I Never Made About RaceFail ’09”, where people talked about questions of power and discourse and expectations. For instance, one assessment of a particular sector of fandom: “non-critical, isolated, and valuing individual competition over hypertext fluency and social interaction.” This struck me as a truth about a divide within open source communities, and between different open source projects.

Jumping off of that came dysprositos’s question, “what expectations do we … have of each other that are not related to fandom but that are not expectations we would have for humanity at large?” (“Inessential weirdness” might be a useful bit of vocabulary here.) In this conversation, vehemently distinguishes between fans who possess “the willingness to be much more openly confrontational of a fannish object’s social defects” vs. those who tend to be “resigned or ironic in their observations of same. I don’t think that’s a difference in analysis, however, but a difference in audiencing, tactics, and intent among the analyzers.” When I saw this I thought of the longtime whisper network among women in open source, women warning each other of sexual abusers, and of the newer willingness to publicly name names. And I thought of how we learn, through explicit teaching and through the models we see in our environment, how to write, read, and respond to bug reports. Are you writing to help someone else understand what needs fixing so they can fix it, or are you primarily concerned with warning other users so they don’t get hurt? Do you care about the author’s feelings when you write a report that she’ll probably read?

Optimizing versus plurality

In fanfic and fanvids, we want more. There is no one true best fic or vid and we celebrate a diverse subjectivity and an ever-growing body of art for everyone to enjoy. We keep making and sharing stuff, delighting in making intricate gifts for each other. In the tech world I have praised !!Con for a similar ethos:

In the best fannish traditions, we see the Other as someone whose fandom we don’t know yet but may soon join. We would rather encourage vulnerability, enthusiasm and play than disrespect anyone; we take very seriously the sin of harshing someone else’s squee.

Sometimes we make new vocabulary to solve problems (“Dead Dove: Do Not Eat”) but sometimes we say it’s okay if the answer to a problem is to have quite a lot of person-to-person conversations. It’s okay if we solve things without focusing first on optimizing, on scaling. And I think the FLOSS world could learn from that. As I said in “Good And Bad Signs For Community Change, And Some Leadership Styles”, in the face of a problem, some people reflexively reach more for “make a process that scales” and some for “have a conversation with ____”. We need both, of course – scale and empathy.

Many of us are in open stuff (fanfic, FLOSS, and all the other nooks and crannies) because we like to make each other happy. And not just in an abstract altrustic way, but because sometimes we get to see someone accomplish something they couldn’t have before, or we get comments full of happy squee when we make a vid that makes someone feel understood. It feels really good when someone notices that I’ve entered a room, remembers that they value me and what I’ve contributed, and greets me with genuine enthusiasm. We could do a lot better in FLOSS if we recognized the value of social grooming and praise — in our practices and in time-consuming conversations, not just in new technical features like a friction-free Thanks button. A Yuletide Treasure gift exchange for code review, testing, and other contributions to underappreciated software projects would succeed best if it went beyond the mere “here’s a site” level, and grew a joyous community of practice around the festival.

What else?

I’m only familiar with my corners of fandom and FLOSS, and I would love to hear your thoughts on what models, values, practices, and intellectual frameworks we in open source ought to borrow from fandom. I’m particularly interested in places where pragmatism trumps ideology, in bits of etiquette, and in negotiating the balance between desires for privacy and for publicity.

It’s Dangerous To Go Alone–I’m So Glad I Don’t Have To!

When Jim C Hines read the Code of Conduct during the opening ceremonies of this year’s North American Science Fiction Convention, I nearly stood up and cheered. I was so, so grateful to Con Chair Tammy Coxen and safety officer Jesi Pershing–and to Tom Smith and Jim, the Masters of Ceremony–for working to make DetConOne a safe and welcoming environment.

Mary Gardiner and Val Aurora of the Ada Initiative

I was also grateful to the Ada Initiative, who wrote the template anti-harassment policy in effect at the conference. The Ada Initiative is dedicated to increasing the participation of women in open technology and culture–including fan culture. One of their biggest victories has been drastically increasing the adoption of strong, clear, specific anti-harassment policies at conventions. I’m a proud supporter of the Ada Initiative and a member of their Advisory Board. Will you join me in supporting their vital work?

Donate now

Authors Mary Robinette Kowal and N.K. Jemisin–both tireless advocates for safety and diversity in Science Fiction–are supporting the Ada Initiative’s annual fundraiser this year.

Mary Robinette Kowal

The first time I saw Mary Robinette Kowal fight harassment was at a science fiction convention where a guy had just made a gross comment about a cosplayer in front of a packed room. While I was still trying to process what the guy had said, Mary fixed him with the most withering “what on earth just came out of your mouth” stare I have ever seen. The guy literally winced. Then he apologized–and for the rest of the night, he watched his mouth.

I remember thinking that I wished she’d been around when I was a thirteen-year-old cosplayer, getting propositioned for sex in the middle of the dealers’ room. Back then, harassment was so endemic to the Science Fiction community that I thought it was just the price of admission. No one else seemed to mind grown men following me around making gross comments, photographing me without permission, or inviting me to ‘private’ room parties, so I assumed it was a norm I had to adjust to.

I’m grateful for the progress the science fiction community has made since then. If science fiction fandom still looked–and acted–like it did back when I was that awkward thirteen-year-old girl, I’m pretty sure my aspirations of becoming a science fiction writer would be gathering dust on a shelf next to my old convention programs. Now a young professional breaking into the industry, I benefit enormously from the work the Ada Initiative, Mary Robinette, N.K. Jemisin, and others have put into making fandom a safer and more welcoming place.

I strongly recommend the Ada Initiative’s detailed timeline of the anti-harassment movement in science fiction. Part of feminist advocacy is giving credit where it is due, and the Ada Initiative’s timeline documents much of the hard work–and hard workers–behind making fandom a safer and more welcoming space.

NK Jemisin

I’m especially grateful to the writers and fans of color, including NK Jemisin (who’s fantastic Guest of Honor speech from this year’s Wiscon should pretty much be required reading), whose hard work and perseverance in the face of cluelessness, blatant racism, and ongoing threats and harassment has finally begun to change the discourse around race in fandom.

We still have a long way to go before organized fandom truly reflects the vibrance and diversity of the fan community. While this work will never get done without hundreds of volunteers carrying the banner, leaving the fight for diversity exclusively to volunteers is an unfair burden–a ‘second shift’ that falls disproportionately on women and marginalized fans. That’s why I’m proud to support the Ada Initiative, which pays advocates a fair wage to do this vitally important work.

Will you join me?

The Hugo Ballot is Out!

The finalists for the 2014 Hugo Awards were announced over the weekend, and gee golly are there some exciting works on that slate. I’m especially excited to see Mary Robinette Kowal’s “The Lady Astronaut Of Mars” on the ballot (it was denied a place on last year’s ballot because it originally appeared as an Audiobook). It’s sharing the novelette category with Aliette de Bodard’s “The Waiting Stars,” which I’ve not read yet but am looking forward to checking out.

Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, which is up for Best Novel, has been making a lot of shortlists this year, including the Hugo, Nebula, and Clarke awards. I’m also glad to see Sofia Samatar’s “Selkie Stories Are For Losers” up for the short story Hugo–it’s definitely worth a read if you haven’t seen it yet (Samatar is also in her second year of eligibility for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer).

And I’m excited that my fellow Writing On The Fast Track alum and all-around good guy Mike Underwood is up for Best Fancast for The Skiffy and Fanty Show. The team behind it includes several other wonderful people, including authors and diversity advocates Julia Rios and Stina Leicht.

If you’re interested in checking out these and the other wonderful & deserving works on this year’s ballot and voting for this year’s Hugo awards, supporting memberships to this year’s WorldCon are available for 40$US. In addition to voting rights, supporting Members get a copy of the Hugo Voter Packet, which contains digital editions of most of the works on the ballot. This works out to a pretty great bargain if you’re excited about even a few of the nominated works–plus you get to vote on this year’s Hugos.

You may notice that there are a few surprising names on this year’s ballot. Theodore Beale (aka Vox Day, a writer whose hate speech got him drummed out of the SFWA last year) and Larry Correia encouraged their fans to nominate a particular ‘slate’ that included several vocal conservatives. Some of their fans have since been heard crowing about how they’ve succeeded in making some kind of political point by getting these folks on the ballot.

It’s unfortunate that they’ve chosen to politicize the Hugo awards in this way. But I would remind folks that are thinking about buying a membership that the Hugo Awards use “Instant Runoff Voting,” a system which allows voters to rank the candidates in each category. The system allows people to rank “No Award” higher than any or all candidates on the ballot. Indeed, in 1987, that very thing happened in the novel category: No Award came in ahead of L. Ron Hubbard’s Black Genesis.

Since invoking Beale’s name tends to cause some of the cesspools of the internet to backflow into the tubes, this is your reminder that we have a strictly-enforced comment policy. So if you’re here from Beale’s fan club: run along. Your comment will go straight to moderation and no one will see it.  There are plenty of places online where you can contribute to a net reduction in the worth and dignity of humanity. This is not one of them.

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.


(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?”


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.


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.


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.