Sometimes, you don’t see how bad things are until the evidence is laid out in front of you.
I don’t always 100% agree with Anita Sarkeesian’s analysis on Feminist Frequency, but her latest video on Women as Background Decoration in video games is pretty hard to argue with. In it, she gives a rundown of how violence (and especially sexual violence) against women is used in video games as a kind of “mood setter,” to give a sense of grittiness or allow the player to play the hero.
Just one of these examples would be horrific. And Anita has enough to fill an entire half an hour video. The bulk of the video isn’t analysis or explanation. It’s just clip after clip after clip, paired with descriptions of the role this moment plays in the game. And it’s pretty stomach-churning stuff.
Of course, not everyone is happy with her expose. Anita Sarkeesian was driven out of her own home earlier this week because of serious threats against her and her family, and she’s previously reported that she gets abuse every single day from irate gamers because of her videos. And why, exactly? Because she criticizes video games? Because she wants them to be more inclusive for women? The irony, of course, is that in threatening and abusing her, these gamers are simply proving her point that video game culture is incredibly sexist and needs change. When people attack her for daring to suggest that gamers might be misogynistic (which she does not even do — she comments on the content of the games themselves), they reveal all the misogyny that fuels them. It could almost be amusing if it wasn’t so terrifying.
I would like to think that people react so horrifically because they feel like she’s criticizing them for liking video games, and because they don’t want their games to be represented by these “blips” of sexism. But it’s hard to believe that. It seems like the people reacting so strongly to Sarkeesian value the misogynistic elements under discussion, especially the ones shown in this video. Why else would a huge chunk of the mods available for Skyrim involve making women in the world more scantily clad? Why else would there be “realistic rape mods” (yes seriously) for the game? People are willing to work hard to add these elements to games that don’t already include them. They enjoy them and want them to be there. And by simply pointing out the existence of this attitude and how pervasive it is, Anita Sarkeesian is threatening their fun and making it seem like it could all be taken away.
#notallgamers, of course. And not all games. But the attitude does exist, and it needs to be tackled. Because when simply mentioning it leads to a woman being driven out of her home, you know you’ve got a problem that runs far too deep to be ignored.
A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be at the Zombies! Run panel at the Nine Worlds Geekfest. Mostly I was there to fangirl the game that turned me from somebody who could barely run for 30 seconds without dying into someone genuinely considering doing a 5K. But during the panel, I actually learned a lot about writing a truly balanced and inclusive game.
In short, good intentions are not enough. All of us have internalized sexism and racism and many other isms, and so we can’t simply trust ourselves and our inclusive leanings to get it right.
Many people are now familiar with the study from the Geena Davis Institute that found that women only make up 17% of the people in crowd scenes in movies. Viewers have therefore been trained to see a split of 17% women and 83% men on screen (or in person) as 50/50, and a presence of 33% or more women as women dominating the space.
Which leads to a rather unnatural-feeling conclusion. As creators (and maybe even as viewers), we have to feel like there are “too many women,” like female characters are dominating the story, in order to have anything close to equal representation. We have to feel like we’re being too feminist, and allowing female characters to take over the story with our feminist agenda, to even see close to as many female characters as male ones. And that is uncomfortable and challenging, even for the most determined among us, but it needs to be done.
So Zombies! Run headwriter Naomi Alderman literally counts the women in this game. And when she finds out that there are more male characters than female ones, as is often unintentionally the case, she flips the gender of originally male characters until the split is equal. And, interestingly, she changes nothing else about the characters except their gender. She doesn’t change their role in the story or their personality or background. She keeps all of their relationships exactly the same. She just changes “he” to “she,” and finds a good female voice actor to bring the character to life.
The result is not only a stronger presence of female characters, but also more varied and well-thought-out female characters, along with the extra bonus of more same-sex relationships into the mix. Because again, for all a writer’s good intentions, it can be far too easy to let internalized sexism influence characters, especially when it comes to background and their role in the story. In fact, Zombies! Run writer Rebecca Levene revealed that she finds it helpful to write characters as male and then flip them on purpose, as way to get around all that internalized BS.
I have to admit, I hadn’t realized how many of the voices in the first season of Zombies! Run are female until it was pointed out to me. And that’s probably a sign of how well the game has been handled. The writers take the responsibility to make people feel safe in the game environment very seriously, and so inclusiveness, including a gender neutral perspective, is their main priority. They didn’t want to have your radio operator be the stereotypical flirty female voice, so they made sure the radio operator was male. They didn’t want the typical “one man, one woman” radio show setup for their Radio Abel feature, and so they made them a gay couple. And in response to all of these male voices, they made pretty much everyone else in the first season of the game female, including the Major, the doctor, and the fellow runner who’s scarily handy at dealing with zombies with a shovel. And it just works.
Or mostly works. Apparently the game developers have received many emails from male players saying that they seem to have downloaded “the girl version,” because the radio operator was a man and they picked up sports bras among the other supplies they collected on their runs. Because even running from zombies must be gendered, and if girls are included, it must instantly be something solely for girls, right?
And I have to admit, even I am sometimes surprised by how “girl-oriented” this gender neutral game really is. With “girl-oriented” actually meaning “not solely male-oriented,” when I think about it more carefully.
Which is depressing, but I think ties back into that first point. Good intentions are not enough. Trusting yourself to be a good judge of balance won’t cut it, and feeling inclusive and being inclusive are not necessarily the same thing. Our internalized sexism can trick us. And so we need to start by counting the women, and relying on fact, not feeling, to move us to a more gender-balanced place in our stories.
I wasn’t going to watch Doctor Who season 8. I really wasn’t. But my old love for the show combined with curiosity over Capaldi’s debut meant that I ultimately couldn’t resist.
Sadly, the episode was pretty “meh.” Not fantastic, not terrible, just… “meh.” And although Capaldi is a talented actor, I had some pretty major issues with the way he fits into the show. He’s taking the Doctor in a new direction, and the writing simply isn’t strong enough to support that.
And, unfortunately, most of the problem lies with Clara.
The pilot of new ABC sitcom Selfie has gone up on Hulu, and since it stars the adorable Karen Gillan and fantastic John Cho, I had to check it out!
A modern-day retelling of My Fair Lady, Selfie stars Doctor Who’s Karen Gillan as Eliza, a successful social media addict who realizes that, for all her likes and retweets, she has no real friends, and John Cho as Henry, the stuck-up marketing genius she convinces to help fix her life.
The concept is pretty ridiculous, and all the attempts to show Eliza as a “social media addict” are cringeworthy at best, but Karen Gillan and John Cho are both adorable as the show’s leads. The show struggles to find its feet, especially when it tries to hammer home any references to its plot conceit, but the final scene in particular is sweet and genuine and promises good things to come.
The show also manages that seemingly impossible feat of introducing diversity into a sitcom world. John Cho plays the (inevitably romantic) male lead, both the boss and the secretary are African American, and we actually get the rare sight of two non-white characters on screen at the same time, talking to one another. Add in Eliza’s plot-important conversations with said secretary and her time with her frenemies in her apartment block, and we’re comfortably into a traditional Bechdel pass as well. Even better, the neighbors that Eliza thinks she hates actually turn out to be nice human beings, with a genuine friend dynamic including book discussions and random singing of Lady Gaga.
But there’s one big question hovering over the entire show: should there be a modern-day retelling of My Fair Lady? The entire show is based on the idea that Eliza needs a guy to teach her how to be a not-horrible person, and although Selfie tries to suggest that Eliza will help and change Henry as much as he helps and changes her, the set-up is still incredibly uncomfortable. Eliza is a shallow, vapid, self-absorbed woman addicted to a supposedly vapid and self-absorbed form of communication — social media — and in the pilot, Henry not only teaches her to focus on the real world and be nice to people, but also how to “de-slut” in order to be “suitable” to attend a wedding. While Henry feels like a normal human being who is slightly uptight and judgemental, Eliza is 100% caricature, and although Karen Gillan gives the character some heart, she can’t change the fact that Eliza is the walking embodiment of many negative, exaggerated stereotypes about modern twenty-something women. Sure, Henry is clearly going to fall for her, and she’s going to influence him too, but while she teaches him how to loosen up and have fun, he teaches her basic principles of being an acceptable human being. It’s hardly equal, and the more I think about it, the more uncomfortable it becomes.
And perhaps I’m being stubborn, especially as the show has a very tongue-in-cheek tone, but I don’t see why Eliza has to change as much as the show suggests. Yes, she doesn’t know how to make friends and is self-absorbed, but can’t she work on that without changing every single thing about her appearance and personality? She could be a really fun and interesting female lead… but only if the show respects her as a character and allows her to continue to be bold and confident and somewhat brash. If she’s diminished into somebody who’s smaller and so seems more acceptable, it’s going to be a real mess of a show.
But if you just don’t think about that stuff, the show is rather bright and light and cute, and it has potential. It’s not laugh-out-loud, at least for me, but it’s a cute show. If it can get over its forced concept and avoid the problems its created, it could even be a good show. But those are going to be some pretty big hurdles to cross.
The pilot is available on Hulu if anyone wants to check it out.
Last weekend, I was lucky enough to be at WorldCon in London, which ran a Young Adult track for the first time. And in that track’s panels, I learned about the movement to create a new Hugo Award category for Best Young Adult novel.
The idea has been raised and rejected multiple times in the past, and now a committee has been created to investigate the idea once again. And as I sat in YA panels, listening to Leigh Bardugo and Sarah J Maas, I couldn’t stop wondering: is a YA Hugo category a good idea?
Because after thinking on it for a good long while, I still really don’t know.
YA sci-fi/fantasy can be of Hugo-winning quality
I read four out of the five nominees for the Best Novel Hugo this year, and with the exception of the winner, Ancillary Justice, I saw nothing that you can’t find in YA genre fiction. No superiority in prose, no superiority in ideas, nothing more challenging or engaging or inventive. Ancilliary Justice is a little different, since its exploration of gender might be considered a bit too conceptual for YA, but just because that sort of thing hasn’t been done yet in YA doesn’t mean it never will, and Hugo winners most years are not as conceptual either.
Some suggestions: The Diviners by Libba Bray, a gorgeously written supernatural horror story set in 1920s New York, with a fantastically imagined world, amazing characters, genuine terror, an intricate plot and great exploration of racial and socio-economic tensions of the time. Or The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, a Roman empire-inspired second world fantasy about slavery. Or The Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo, which is a fantastic exploration of power.
But YA sci-fi/fantasy doesn’t get recognition
“Young adult” is still something of a dirty word in genre fiction circles. It’s marketed for teenage girls, and therefore, like romance and “chick lit,” is trash for people with no brains or taste. With that kind of (clearly false) mainstream attitude, it can be difficult for great YA novels to get recognition outside of the YA sphere — and even harder for great genre fiction to be recognized, as it has the double difficulty of not being “serious” and “literary” (like The Fault in Our Stars) and usually not being written by a man (like The Fault in Our Stars). If Young Adult had its own category in the Hugos, five YA novels each year would have to be nominated and disseminated to WorldCon members, and one YA novel would have to win. It would prevent a lot of great books being overlooked simply because of their target audience.
YA genre fiction is mostly written by women
I lack stats on this one, but my experience in bookstores, talking to other authors, and looking at the series NYT bestseller list, the majority of YA sci-fi/fantasy writers are women. Meanwhile, here’s a look at the percentage of female writers on the Hugo ballots each year. Female writers were 53%, 52% and 61% of nominees in 2011, 2012 and 2013, but only 39% this year, a number that’s much more representative of the typical percentage of female nominees. From 2000 to 2009, the number hovered around 20% — three years where women were more than 50% can’t really change the fact that they are almost always less than 40%, and only made up 5% of the ballot as recent as 2007. A YA Hugo would have to increase the percentage of female nominees and winners, by the very nature of the genre.
And it mostly stars women
The vast majority of protagonists in YA are young women, and increased support for female-led genre fiction can only be a good thing.
It could mark YA novels as “lesser” instead of encouraging people to accept them
A separate category doesn’t say “these novels are worthy of a Hugo.” It says “these novels couldn’t win a real Hugo.” No new categories have been made for other genres, like fantasy or horror. They’re just included in the main Best Novel category. A separate category for YA novels would therefore mark the nominees as lesser books that couldn’t compete with the proper leaders of the genre. And if the category existed, YA authors would never be nominated for or win the Hugo for Best Novel, the top prize in the awards.
It could create a category for female authors
Since so much of YA genre fiction is written by women, I could imagine a YA Hugo becoming the “girls’” category, the one that women are allowed to win. I could see it being renamed as “girls’ genre fiction” in people’s minds, and non-YA fiction being nominated simply by virtue of being written by a woman. If nominations reflected the gender split of YA authors, it could also create the illusion that the Hugos are more gender-balanced than they are, without actually addressing the percentage of female nominees for categories like Best Novel and Best Novella.
Hugo voters may not actually nominate the best of the bunch
Lack of familiarity with the genre could mean nominating and voting for YA novels written by mainstream adult sci-fi/fantasy authors… most of whom are men. I’m thinking Terry Pratchett, Joe Abercrombie, Neil Gaiman and their ilk. If people voted for familiar names, rather than reading more widely, the nominees and winners could be very unrepresentative of the genre as a whole and reward adult writers who branch into YA over full-time YA authors who would benefit more from the nomination or award.
So… I genuinely don’t know. A YA Hugo could bring more attention to YA genre fiction and its authors, and in turn show that it contains quality fiction that is worthy of recognition. It could especially benefit female authors and show that “teenage girl books” are not a bad thing. Once that perception has been changed, YA novels could be streamed back into the main Best Novel category. But then, people might see that as a sign that the books are “not worthy.” A separate category could do even more damage to the genre’s reputation as “not real genre fiction,” and might not even lead to the showcasing of YA authors when so many more well-known names also dabble in the genre.
I really hope the committee will look not only at the quality of the genre itself, but on how people would react to such a category. Who would be nominating books? Teens and other readers of YA? Would this be a temporary measure or a permanent fixture? And would WFSA members take seriously any book that appeared in the category?
I’m off conventioning.
This weekend, I’m at NineWorlds in Heathrow, and if you’re also going to be there, you can come and see me read an extract from my debut novel A Wicked Thing at the New Voices panel on Saturday August 9th at 10:15pm. (Please come! I could read to an empty room, but it’d be better with people there :P).
Then next weekend I’m at Worldcon in London. Not reading or panelling this time, just going from talk to talk with my notebook, learning things about writing and feminism in genre fiction and hopefully getting into George RR Martin’s reading from Winds of Winter.
I may manage to post some stuff from the conventions next week, but otherwise, FeministFiction is on hiatus until after the 18th. Fingers crossed I’ll have some interesting discussions to report on when I return!
In the meantime, check out the Women Who Kick Ass panel from SDCC, with Natalie Dormer, Maisie Williams, Katey Sagal, Sarah Paulson, Tatiana Maslany and Nicole Beharie talking about feminism, genre television, and the media.
Why does the world seem to hate Iron Man 2?
Sure, its superhero vs supervillain plot isn’t the best, but the movie is a lot of fun, and has a lot of great character stuff to boot. Perhaps it’s not particularly thrilling as a standalone comic book movie, but as an instalment in the growing Marvel universe, seen after Iron Man 1, it’s pretty great.
And — shock of shocks — it actually has two significant female characters. One of whom is a hero in her own right. If only she wasn’t standing in an almost anatomically impossible way on the promo poster.
I’ve also found it fascinating that in “Rumplestiltskin,” the heroine is known only as “the miller’s daughter” or “the queen,” while Rumpelstiltskin’s name becomes a magical talisman. In a story about the potency of names, the heroine is anonymous. Charlotte Miller’s story began here.
That’s a quote from the author’s note at the end of A Curse Dark as Gold, and I think it perfectly captures the magic of this novel. It’s a feminist retelling of Rumplestiltskin, focusing on the Miller’s Daughter and the question of why she would respond to Rumplestiltskin the way she does.
When Charlotte Miller’s father dies, Charlotte is the only family member left to run the mill that supports her entire community. The mill is falling apart, traders are dismissive of the teenage Charlotte, and people whisper of a curse around the business, but Charlotte is determined to keep the mill running. Then she learns that her father took out a two thousand pound loan before he died, and the bankers are unwilling to trust a single woman to repay it. She needs to find the money, now, or else she will lose her home, her business, and the one place holding her community together.
Charlotte is a fantastic protagonist. Hardworking, stubborn and determined, she fights endless opposition to keep the mill running. She’s kind-hearted and incredibly loyal to her village and her mill, and her pragmatic, level-headed approach to life and work keeps her hunting for logical explanations as the “curse” seems to hit her again and again. And these character strengths are also her weaknesses, allowing her to keep going when many others would quit, but also gradually ensnaring her in Rumplestiltskin’s trap.
The novel is a slow build, but its gorgeous writing and compelling characters make it enjoyable from the start. Bunce perfectly balances Charlotte’s emotional growth and the development of the plot at the mill with a gothic atmosphere, lurking in the background and coloring everything. The novel has a strong undertone of wrongness running through it, an unsettling feeling that you just can’t shake, and this grows and grows, until the undefined tension is almost too much to bear. The final chapters are terrifying, and I kind of regretted reading them at 1am, but I couldn’t put the book down to wait for comforting sunlight.
If you enjoy fairy tale retellings or historical fantasy, then this is definitely one to read.
Aladdin is a strange movie to discuss in the context of Disney Princesses. Unless I’ve forgotten something, it’s the only official Disney Princess movie where the princess isn’t the protagonist. In fact, although she has a couple of scenes without Aladdin, Jasmine’s role in the movie isn’t that significant, and she’s absent for many of the important scenes. But I think it’s interesting to look at how Disney treats its female characters when they’re not the protagonist of the story.
And it looks like Disney put a lot of effort into giving Jasmine “girl power” and independence, at least in her dialogue and attitude. Unfortunately, they didn’t follow through and give her strength in the plot itself.
Neptune’s Brood is the most painful book I’ve read in a long, long while.
The prose isn’t bad. The worldbuilding is incredibly in-depth. There’s action and intrigue and space pirates and mermaids. But the execution of the story was so painful that I could barely force myself to read halfway through the book, let alone to the end.
Ostensibly, Neptune’s Brood is about a financial historian named Krina, who’s searching across the universe for her missing sister. As the novel opens, we’re not told why she’s hunting for her sister or why she might be missing, but eventually we learn what Krina has known all along: the two of them were tracking down the biggest fraud in history, trying to figure out what happened and collect any millions that may have gone unclaimed in the aftermath, and they angered the people involved along the way.
But Neptune’s Brood isn’t really about Krina. It’s what I’m going to call “financial fantasy.” It’s all about a fictional financial situation. The financial instruments that are used. Their history. How they’re abused. The problems that they cause. And this isn’t just a background for a plot. This is the plot. The financial system is the protagonist of Neptune’s Brood. It receives whole chapters of explanation and exploration. And hey, if speculatory financial systems in universe-sized economies are of interest, you might get a lot more out of this book than I did. But if you’re looking for a novel, this isn’t the place to turn.
Because, yes, there is a plot. Sort of. But Stross doesn’t seem to care about it. It’s constantly interrupted by massive info dumps about economics. It has no real structure or sense. The first person narration withholds information from the reader to create “intrigue,” but it only creates frustration. Meanwhile, the prose style fluctuates wildly, the novel switches between first and third person even when our first person narrator is present in a scene, and information is repeated in an almost identical manner multiple times. The narrative makes some attempts to set itself up as a diary, or a historian’s report, or something vaguely along those times, but it never bothers to keep up the conceit, to explain how the supposed narrator knows what happened in places she never was, with people she never communicated with. It’s the most flimsy and inconsistent novel I’ve read in a really long time.
And yet the effort is clearly there. The world has a lot of depth and thought put into it. The effort was just in the wrong place. For example, Stross seems to love world-building. Really love world building. But he doesn’t want to put anything in that world. Characterization, plot, emotion, compelling action… they’re all a distant second to explaining the novel’s setting, over and over again. We land on a new planet, and we get pages and pages and pages telling us about its politics, about its economics, about its uranium deposits and the exact technical terms for this kind of planet. We know more about a city where we’ll spend thirty pages than we do about any of the characters.
I stubbornly stuck with the book to the end, not caring about the characters, not really knowing what their aims where, not caring too much about the mysteries, in the hope that the end would provide some great payoff. But spoiler alert: it doesn’t. It doesn’t even properly end. In the final two chapters, a few revelations are thrown out, and we end up in a space battle… which basically involves the protagonist saying “space battles are boring,” the narration skipping over any action, and the novel ending so abruptly that it’s almost as if the author had to wrap it up in ten seconds before his laptop battery died. Did characters live or die? What were the consequences of this dramatic turn of events? What even happened during this grand finale? Who knows? Who cares? The characters and the plot never really mattered, so they’re dropped almost in mid-air, leaving the reader to stare at the blank page and wonder what on earth just happened.
And yet, this novel is nominated for a Hugo award. Because of name recognition? Because of the depth of the world building and economic thought? I don’t know. Economics enthusiasts may enjoy this one, but as a novel, it fails almost entirely.