Another Word: #PurpleSF
The recent bizarre events of Gamergate have had me musing about feminism a lot in the past few months. (If you’re unfamiliar with the Gamergate phenomenon, it’s a recent controversy among video gamers that different sides have said is about different things, but which, no matter what you believe, seems to involve a great deal of harassment and threats aimed almost entirely against women.) Feminists are one of Gamergate’s favorite targets—in attacks that have included “doxxing” (publishing personal information) and death threats.
Tremendous amounts of vitriol, bile, and verbal spewing of the sort that only the Internet + anonymity can produce have been emitted on Gamergate’s behalf. For me, it has been unfortunately familiar. As a longtime gamer and sometimes game administrator who is female, I’ve seen horrible things that include harassment, being discredited on the basis of gender, and psychological attacks.
So much of it seems to center on the validity of concepts such as feminism, racism, privilege, etc. And that becomes a wearying point to start from over and over again, to have to constantly argue not just one’s critique of something, but the tools one is using.
It’s overlapped, time and time again, with some of the discussion that I’ve seen in fantasy and science fiction circles. And in both cases, I’m glad to see a lot of this discussion taking place, because it’s long overdue. However, I’m dismayed by displays of misogyny and hatred as well as the lack of attempt at communication between groups whose members are, in the vast majority, well-intentioned and reasonable human beings.
I’m willing to acknowledge that in the past there have been problems in SFF that were a result of the times, of a lack of education, or other mitigating features. I call these folks causing those problems “Team Clueless,” and one thing characterizing them is that they simply haven’t had access to some of the concepts that have been integrated into the general vocabulary in the last couple of centuries: racism, sexism, feminism, privilege, etc.
The important thing to remember is that while problems in the community continue nowadays, it’s increasingly hard to have a valid membership on Team Clueless, particularly when so many of these discussions provide resources with which to understand the concepts in use.
When I edited the Women Destroy Fantasy special issue of Fantasy Magazine, I wrote in the accompanying editorial, “Sexism in genre literature has been documented to the point where it seems silly to question its existence.” And I stand by that.
We can pay attention to the underrepresentation of women that’s documented in the Vida Count Report, for one. We can examine the multiple studies that show that blind submissions to periodicals have different results than situations in which the gender of the submitter is known, and that those differences are skewed along gender lines. We can examine a multitude of manifestations of Helen Lewis’s law: “The comments on any article about feminism justify feminism.”
Or we could believe the many, many, many women who have spoken about being harassed, belittled, silenced, or even attacked in the genre community.
I was reminded of this earlier in the year. Over the course of an interview, the male interviewer pressed me for examples of sexism occurring in our genre that had happened to me personally, or failing that, to tell stories I’d heard from other women. I demurred, because for me the discussion’s tone set my teeth on edge.
Do we really have to start the conversation from that point each time? I’d said what I did in the essay because I’d like to move us past that “let us produce samples of sexism and dissect them to determine their validity” approach. If we could dispense with that discussion, maybe we could get to the point where we start talking about how to change things, rather than just about how shitty they are. Because they are infuriatingly, stiflingly shitty.
If you truly doubt that men and women have limiting gender roles imposed on them by the world, then go to a toy store, walk through the aisles and look at how early in life the pink/blue divide occurs and what gets put on either side of it.
Recently Anita Sarkeesian, a favorite Gamergate target, spoke at XOXO, an arts and technology festival in Portland, about how to support women online. She ended her talk by saying, “One of the most radical things you can do is to actually believe women when they talk about their experiences.”
Beyond all of that, the eagerness to find offenders made me uncomfortable. One reason I find listing names an ineffective approach is that if you’re going to hunt for past examples in order to punish the offenders, no wonder those folks have a stake in rejecting the overall concept of their actions or words being offensive. You’re going to have a hard time finding common ground with someone when that territory’s got a set of stocks with their name on it.
Sometimes, admittedly, this punitive angle is self-imposed by those who identify with Team Clueless. For example, look at the furor that’s been generated by Daniel José Older's suggestion that the World Fantasy Award bust no longer be of H.P. Lovecraft, but a writer more indicative of the genre’s current nature. This got turned into “Lovecraft was just a product of his times and you want to erase him from fantasy!”
Which isn’t, as far as I can tell, what anyone was proposing. A lot of fantasy writers acknowledge that Lovecraft’s been a long and strong influence. What they don’t sometimes acknowledge is that the man also did things like write an eight-line, horribly racist poem called “On the Creation of Niggers” and that therefore maybe he’s not the one we all want to be identifying with today, particularly when a) there’s an awful lot of other equally amazing but less problematic writers out there and b) it doesn’t need to be a bust of a person at all.
My favorite counter-proposal is a winged cat, but if you wanted something more writerly, you could go with a winged cup of coffee. In short, one can still like Lovecraft and yet feel that maybe he’s not the best representative of the modern fantasy genre.
There’s a lot of this you-are-with-us-or-you-are-against-us feeling in these discussions, and that’s a shame. It leads to phenomena like the SJW (Social Justice Warrior) label, which is used as a weapon to invalidate any protest or objection. The label overlooks the fact that while online trolls do exist, most of us don’t really like stirring up dissension. A useful analogy is comparing being offensive to stepping on someone’s foot—it is more reasonable to apologize and get off their foot than to deny stepping on it or accusing them of trying to trip you.
I find the negativity attached to the SJW label bewildering, perhaps because I came from a campus where the Center for Social Concerns is an accepted institution, offering classes that focus on how to help people. Built into the SJW stereotype as constructed by their opponents is an eagerness to be outraged that doesn’t exist except in a few crazy cases on every side of things. Lunatics are a fact of life, and judging any group by its outliers is a mistake at the least, and an ethically bankrupt rhetorical strategy.
Another bone of contention is that the term “diversity” appears in these struggles and, somewhat unsurprisingly, encompasses a great many things. As with Gamergate, to some it seems an effort to shove them out of the clubhouse, while to others, it’s asking that there be a little bit more room in the clubhouse so they can get in.
My identity as a writer/editor/reader shapes my opinion of the word. I’m on the side that sees diversity as celebrating different voices, while the other side perceives it as being about stifling theirs. But as writers, as people interested in writing about our world, whether we disguise it with three moons or a population of sentient unicorns, shouldn’t we be valuing the approach that privileges a multitude of possible voices, rather than sticking to a particular and circumscribed one?
Science fiction is, at the heart of it, a way of writing about our world, which is one that is diverse and multifaceted, a world made of millions of POVs. Readers don’t mind a protagonist unlike themself, but we want a few that are, that show us another vision of ourselves, from time to time.
Rather than the PinkSF and BlueSF divide that some propose, can’t we go for something a bit more interesting, perhaps purple with its multitude of hues from deep purple on up to palest lavender? Let’s see less F&SF worried about fitting into categories and more of it interested in questioning and moving beyond those categories.
As part of that movement, we do need to agree that there’s a distinct difference between being called sexist/racist/whatever and being told that something you have said or done is offensive because it’s sexist/racist/whatever. Part of getting past the kneejerk reaction of outrage that comes with being corrected is realizing and internalizing that criticism. It’s a hard lesson for many of us, but one that is (imo) necessary for our continued growth as human beings.
Because we do, overall, continue to grow. One of the bright spots of Gamergate has been seeing a crop of bright, fierce, younger feminists such as Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, and Brianna Wu. For those of us who’ve been here in the trenches for a while, it’s reassuring to know that others will and have picked up the torch of social justice, and are willing to fight for the right for every race, shape, gender, orientation, or other divisive category be included under the label of human beings.
The conversation will not go away in 2015. It’ll keep on going, informing and changing us all. There will be painful moments, but there will also be amazing and wonderful things coming out of it. Here’s to that. Here’s to the future we all, no matter what side we’re on, are moving towards.