Stormwatch 2014

It's been kind of a perfect storm, for a given and somewhat ironic definition of "perfect."

One air mass came from Isla Vista, California, where a murder spree was accompanied by the killer's placing his misogynist manifesto on the internet; another came from the usually placid confines of WisCon, Madison's annual science fiction/fantasy fan convention. A stream blew in from Houston, where writer John Scalzi was spending his weekend, and another from Seattle, where cartoonist and longtime friend of the family Abby Howard plies her trade. And there I was under it all. trying to gauge the weather with my usual tool: the internet.

From Houston: In recent years, there has been an issue arising from behavior at conventions. Those unfamiliar with fandom may not know about the phenomenon of cosplay, but it's a long-standing tradition at cons for many attendees to dress as characters from their favorite narratives, whether movies, comics, books, TV shows, or video games. It's also a practice that has led some fans (typically male) to complain that some of the cosplayers (typically female) aren't REAL fans--in other words, that they're affecting an outlandish appearance to draw attention to themselves, rather than showing proper fannish dedication to the works in which the characters appear. This "Fake Geek Girl" controversy has garnered a fair amount of attention in fan circles, so it naturally came to mind when I saw a Tweet from blogger/SF author John Scalzi, who was visiting a convention in Houston:

Scalzi: My cosplay as an aimlessly wandering middle aged dude is FLAWLESS

I replied:

 @scalzi I'm tired of you Fake Geek Aimlessly Wandering Middle Aged Dudes ruining fandom for the REAL Aimlessly Wandering Middle Aged Dudes.

Scalzi retweeted me, and because he is followed by nearly 63,000 people on Twitter, my reply was seen by quite a few people, many of whom found it amusing enough to retweet it to their own followers--more retweets than I've ever gotten before, certainly.

From WisCon: Meanwhile, a few hundred miles to the north, WisCon 2014 was going on. It's a con that a number of my friends have attended and greatly enjoyed, though Kelly has so far been unable to attend. Still, I was receiving regular reports from some of my other fannish friends, including several of the past and current members of Fantastic Fangirls. One reason they love WisCon is that it was founded as an explicitly feminist gathering; not only are topics of gender, race, and class central to the con's discussions, its list of past Guests of Honor is basically a Who's Who of SF/F's leading women: Marta Randall, Octavia Butler, Connie Willis, Kate Wilhelm, Sherri S. Tepper, and the incandescent Ursula K. Le Guin. Men are welcome (including past GoHs George R.R. Martin, China Mieville, and Terry Carr), but the central focus of WisCon is women. And that makes it unusual.

Having spent nearly thirty years visiting comics shops with my wife, I can personally attest to the fact that comics shops are largely the province of young men, typically young white men, and that a woman walking into a comics shop will usually have her body scoped out in a manner somewhat akin to the way I look at a new life bird; in addition, her expertise and/or opinions about comics and their characters may be challenged or dismissed at any moment. This phenomenon has only increased as comics have gotten more mainstream, thanks to the popularity of comics-based TV shows (Arrow, The Walking Dead, the upcoming Constantine, and my old schoolchum Clark Gregg's Agents of SHIELD) and movies (The Avengers, the Dark Knight trilogy, and the various X-Men and Spider-Man reboots). Once the exclusive province of bookworms and nerds like me, comics has now drawn attention from people with whom those traditional fans don't regularly interact, and not all of the bookworms are happy to be sharing.

It's also a phenomenon which slops over into fandom for SF and fantasy, and it's that which led WisCon Guest of Honor N.K. Jemisin to deliver a speech calling on fans to "fucking fight"--more specifically, to stop tolerating the kinds of harassment, dismissal, and even rape/death threats to which she and many other women in SF/F have been subjected. It was a timely call.
And from here on, wherever you see bigotry in the genre? Attack it. Don't wait for it to come directly at you; attack it even if it's hitting another group. If you won't ride or die for anyone else, how can you expect them to ride or die for you? Understand that there are people in this genre who hate you, and who do not want you here, and who will hurt you if they can. Do not tolerate their intolerance. Don't be "fair and balanced." Tell them they're unwelcome. Make them uncomfortable. Shout them down. Kick them out. Fucking fight. - See more at: http://nkjemisin.com/2014/05/wiscon-38-guest-of-honor-speech/#sthash.PMjAMtim.dpuf

From Seattle:
My family's roots in Chapel Hill, NC, are about as old as I am, and we keep up with some of our family friends even when they're far-flung indeed. Abby Howard is one of those friends, a descendant of the legendary Macknee clan now living in the Pacific Northwest and working on two webcomics, her loopy and sometimes autobiographical Junior Scientist Power Hour and the alternately sunny and monstrous horror adventure The Last Halloween. She's also a young lady with, um, opinions, and she was quite free about sharing them with her 11,000 Twittter followers when it came to the issue of how women are treated in our society--and more particularly in comics fandom. She lost some offended followers in the fray, but she reported on her mom's Facebook page that she's picked up enough  admiring new followers to make up the difference.

And where did the main air mass of this weekend come from? Where you'd expect:
And from here on, wherever you see bigotry in the genre? Attack it. Don't wait for it to come directly at you; attack it even if it's hitting another group. If you won't ride or die for anyone else, how can you expect them to ride or die for you? Understand that there are people in this genre who hate you, and who do not want you here, and who will hurt you if they can. Do not tolerate their intolerance. Don't be "fair and balanced." Tell them they're unwelcome. Make them uncomfortable. Shout them down. Kick them out. Fucking fight. - See more at: http://nkjemisin.com/2014/05/wiscon-38-guest-of-honor-speech/#sthash.PMjAMtim.dpuf
And from here on, wherever you see bigotry in the genre? Attack it. Don't wait for it to come directly at you; attack it even if it's hitting another group. If you won't ride or die for anyone else, how can you expect them to ride or die for you? Understand that there are people in this genre who hate you, and who do not want you here, and who will hurt you if they can. Do not tolerate their intolerance. Don't be "fair and balanced." Tell them they're unwelcome. Make them uncomfortable. Shout them down. Kick them out. Fucking fight. - See more at: http://nkjemisin.com/2014/05/wiscon-38-guest-of-honor-speech/#sthash.PMjAMtim.dpuf

From Isla Vista:
  In the wake of the publicity surrounding Elliot Rodger's misogynist manifesto, the Not All Men approach quickly became an easily discernible part of the public discourse. In his writings and online activity, Rodger identified himself with so-called "men's rights activists" (MRAs) and "pick-up artists" (PUAs), prompting members of both groups, as well as men in general, to denounce him. The most common method was some variation on "Not All Men": Not All Men are misogynists, Not All Men judge women by their appearance, Not All Men commit violence against women, etc. It was a rhetorical approach I recognized, because I had used it myself.

A few weeks back, I was hanging out in one of my online spaces, one formed by members of the Golden Horde (a/k/a the Lost Battalion of Platonic Conversationalists, the Black Republicans, and the Fucking Feminists), one of the numerous names self-applied by regular commenters at the blog of Ta-Nehisi Coates. (Coates himself stirred up some air masses recently with his remarkable essay for The Atlantic, "The Case for Reparations," which ought to be required reading for anyone who thinks racism ended with slavery, or ended with Jim Crow, or for that matter ended at all.) The topic of conversation was this piece at ManRepeller.com, one which discussed the topic of women not wearing makeup. Having as I do a strong preference for female faces with no or minimal makeup, I chimed in to note that not all men like women to wear it.

I was quickly made aware that there exists a common argumentative approach known as "Not All Men." In it, a conversation about a norm in the relationship between men and women sparks an objection from a man who identifies himself as falling outside the norm--exactly what I had done. The problem, pointed out to me gently but firmly by some of the Fucking Feminists, was that I was A) assuming women didn't KNOW about men who dislike makeup, and B) worried more about offering correction than sympathy. In short, I was trying to turn a conversation about what they have to put up with into a conversation about what I was/wasn't forcing them to put up with.

It was eye-opening. And given that my own feminist leanings are damn near inborn, it was more than a little embarrassing. Not only was I raised by a charter subscriber to Ms. Magazine, I've spent decades married to a woman whose expectations of equal treatment have never been hidden or in doubt. I've long prided myself on treating the women in my life as human beings, with their own agency, their own opinions, and their own responsibilities, but here, an honest appraisal led to a single conclusion: I'd jumped into a discussion with an array of unconscious prejudices working on me. I therefore did what any man (or woman) in such a situation should do: I apologized and vowed to keep my lesson in mind.

This is why, in the wake of reading the eye-opening and often infuriating tweets posted under the hashtag #YesAllWomen, I felt compelled to share what I'd learned:

Me: Guys, don't try to tell women it's Not All Men; they know. What they might like to hear is that WE know it's Too Many Men. #YesAllWomen

And that was the other thing that got retweeted more than anything else I'd ever posted on Twitter. Which felt pretty good. Better still, this morning, I found that there was another guy out there thinking like I was. He goes by the nom de Web of thefrogman, and I thought his analogy was spot-on, so I passed it along to the Twitterverse as well:

"Imagine a bowl of M&Ms. 10% of them are poisoned. Go ahead. Eat a handful. Not all M&Ms are poison."  --thefrogman

And that, in a nutshell, is how I spent my weekend: sending up little kites of thought into the hurricane swirling around the issue of patriarchy, never entirely sure they'd come back down.

Nor was it entirely on the internet. On Saturday, two of my student advisees graduated, and one of them was a girl. At our boys' boarding school, the only female students are faculty daughters, and this one had spent the last four years in a near-total state of self-consciousness. It took an enormous amount of determination and restraint to get through those four years as The Only Girl (though she did at least have her younger sister's company for 2013-14), but as proud as I am of her, in many ways the feeling I have for her now is one of relief: now, finally, she's off to college, where she'll be one of thousands of young women pursuing their educations, and she won't have to have her entire life dictated by her sex... if it is actually possible in our culture for a woman's entire life NOT to be dictated by her sex.

The winds are doubtless still raging in other places, but I've found shelter now and am preparing to put aside the web and concentrate on the demands of the week: my last dorm duty, my final exams, and a bunch of grading. I don't know what has been accomplished this Memorial Day Weekend, and I certainly don't know that I've done anything to help accomplish it. But at the very least, either on the web or in the classroom, I hope I've helped at least one man re-evaluate his approach to conversing with women--and with any luck, thereby helped at least one woman find a moment of peace in the eye of the storm.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on May 26, 2014 12:36 PM.

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