Tag Archives: social justice

#INeedDiverseGames – and #WeNeedDiverseBooks – because anything less is shitty writing

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There’s been some great stuff said in the #INeedDiverseGames hashtag in the last couple of days, though if you check it out – and you should – be aware that of course people with other agendas have found it and are being ugly in it. Not all of it is overtly ugly, though, in the same way that not all of the people supporting the GamerGate crowd are actually monstrous assholes. One of the things I saw linked – and I’m sorry, but I can’t now seem to find it, so you’re just going to have to take my word for it – was a rather long post that picked apart the demographics of people who play games, delivered an analysis, and ended with the claim that there’s no solid evidence that lack of representation in media has detrimental psychological effects (untrue) and questioned whether diversity really is necessary in games. “It would be nice, sure”, said the author (I’m paraphrasing somewhat). “But is it something we really need?”

Okay.

I mean, maybe you don’t think we do need it. Maybe you don’t think it’s actually necessary. Maybe you think it would be cool and you’re not against it as such, but you think people are making kind of too much of a Thing out of it and they’re just looking for something about which to be loud and angry. As the demands for more diverse and inclusive SF&F have intensified we’ve seen the exact same kind of claims, usually along with protestations that things aren’t actually that bad anyway. It’s not necessary.

Okay.

Got a question for you, then: Do you care about good stories?

Just that. That simple. Presumably you do – if you read books, if you play games, if you watch TV and movies, presumably you’d prefer to be reading and playing and watching stuff that’s actually good, right? You’re not going to embrace stuff that’s shitty and boring. If someone came up to you and said “wow, you sure do prefer tame, safe, bland, status quo-embracing shit, don’t you?” you’d probably push back against that pretty hard, right? And yeah, a lot of us like stuff that’s loud and silly and focused entirely on being entertaining with no pretensions toward anything more and that’s great, but I don’t think any of us would cop to loving it because it’s shit and wanting nothing except more shit for the rest of whatever.

Right?

And if you write books and short stories, if you make movies and TV and games, I’m guessing you feel even more strongly about this. You’d ideally like to be making good stuff. You probably don’t want to make shitty, boring, unimaginative things. You probably wouldn’t like to see your chosen field choked with shitty, boring, unimaginative things. We all want to be proud of what we do, and we want to be proud of the community in which we’re doing it. If we’re creators, we want to be creating good things, and we want to be surrounded by people who are making good things, because they push us further, make us want to do more, make us reach for greater creations. Even if you’re writing pulpy, silly stuff, even if you’re making those same big, loud, entertaining, unpretentious spectacles, I’m sure you want to make the best damn big, loud, entertaining, unpretentious spectacle you can. If you’re a creator, I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that you actually give at least a little bit of a fuck about what you’re making.

Right?

So here, if you refuse to accept anything else, is the reason why we need diverse games and books and stories: Anything less is shitty writing.

If your writing is full of white men, it’s shitty writing. If your writing erases any sexual or gender identity other than straight cisgender people, it’s shitty writing. If your writing reduces women to (usually injured, kidnapped, or killed) motivations for your male characters, it’s shitty writing. If your writing presents histories in which people of color play no role at all and you defend it with “but historical accuracy!”, you’re wrong and also it’s shitty writing.

It’s status quo, it’s tired, it’s boring, it’s bland, it’s unimaginative, it’s been done to death, it’s shitty shitty shitty. And if you give even a little bit of a fuck about your craft, you have no excuse whatsoever for being satisfied with it, let alone defending it.

Know what else? It’s also not true. Because here’s the thing: writing stories is about telling lies that are fundamentally true, and any writing that doesn’t do that on a foundational level is shitty writing. Telling a story is about creating characters who feel real, who are recognizable to us even if they aren’t like us. Truly great writing will open a way for us to feel connected to people who are very different from us, who themselves represent an expansion of how we see the world. And the world is diverse. Fabulously so. The world is rich and wild and beautiful with diversity – it’s a treasure house of diversity, of so many different people with so many different experiences, knowledges, struggles, histories. These are deep waters, friends, and they are teeming with glorious diversity. Each element of difference is a chance to tell a new story, to weave a thread into a larger, grander tapestry. And the stories that do this don’t have to be anything but entertaining. They don’t have to be the next Academy Award-winning film, the next show to get showered with Emmys. They don’t have to be books and short stories that win Nebulas and Hugos and Campbells. They can be loud and big and silly and fun, and aim for nothing more.

That doesn’t mean they can’t also be true. It’s not a burden to make them true. It’s not difficult. It’s easy. Just be willing to write stuff that isn’t shitty.

This is why the whole “but it’s bad to be diverse just for the sake of being diverse!” argument is utter bullshit. How about being diverse for the sake of writing well? How about being diverse for the sake of being real? How about doing it for the sake of writing true? How about doing it because it is not that goddamn hard?

If you really think that – if you really think it’s silly, that doing it is sacrificing some kind of artistic principle, if you really think people are making a Thing out of it, if you really think it’s unnecessary – fine. But in that case I have no choice but to conclude that you’re a lazy, shitty writer or a consumer of lazy, shitty writing, and that’s what you’re satisfied to do and to be.

And dude. Dude. Dude.

No.

If you’re a straight cisgender woman writing m/m romance, sorry, you are not striking a blow for equality

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[Dear people reading this in the Year of Our Lord 2017: I don’t know where you’re all coming from, or why you’re coming here now, but I wrote this literally years ago and don’t give a shit anymore, so please be aware that when you feel the need to register your disagreement with me, all you’re doing is clogging up my inbox with opinions I don’t care about regarding a thing I don’t care about. Which annoys me. Given that, I’m locking the comments. Thanks and enjoy your stay.]

Just to get my argument clear in the headline.

A lot of things have prompted this, and nothing in particular has. The truth is that this is something I’ve been feeling for a while. It’s something I’ve wrestled with a bit, given that two of the novels and two of the novellas I’ve sold have been marketed as m/m romance, though I’m not cisgender, nor am I straight. It’s something I’ve gotten shades of since I started really being aware of m/m romance as a genre, and since I started understanding the uglier side of it, it’s something I’ve come to understand features heavily in a lot of parts of the slashy areas of fandom. In fact, if something in particular prompted this little tantrum – aside from some very self-congratulatory stuff I’ve seen recently about standard m/m romance doing exactly what I said it isn’t doing up there in the headline –  it’s a good recent piece by Jim Hines about the times when something just isn’t your thing to make a story out of.

So when a reader says they don’t want white people writing about their culture, and that they don’t want me specifically to do so, I find myself struggling. And I think it’s good for me to struggle with it. I refuse to write books where I pretend other cultures don’t exist. But I also recognize that there are stories I’m simply not qualified to write well, that no matter how respectful I might try to be, my story wouldn’t be true. (An odd thing to say about fiction, but I hope you understand what I mean.) And I know that sometimes I’m going to screw up.

Here’s something you have to do if you’re in a position of privilege and you’re writing about people who aren’t: ask yourself if it’s your story to tell. Ask yourself every single time. You may not arrive at an easy answer. You may not arrive at an answer at all. But storytelling is very fucking political, and you owe it to you, your story, your characters, and everyone who might ever read it to ask the question.

You may want to tell the story. No one can stop you from telling the story. But at least be honest with yourself about what you’re doing and why. And I cannot escape the feeling – not least while so many publishers of “LGBT” romance almost entirely ignore the L, the T, and frequently shove the B into the whole “menage” category – that the reasons why a lot of m/m romance exists are not tasteful.  To borrow from Hannibal/Thomas Harris, they are not tasty.

Then I found this.

Amy began by saying that “love is redemptive” and if any group needs the redemptive qualities of love, it’s gay men.

are you seriously

Writing about two men falling in love is completely different than the traditional romance. For one thing, both characters are equals, each with his own power.

are you seriously

“In fact, in many ways, I feel like a man,” Josephine stated in her British accent. This realization makes it easier for her to bypass all the traditional tropes found in mainstream romances.

“I’m tired of women’s nasty, mean games, and don’t want to write about them,” Amy added. Backbiting and undermining of friends’ goals and aspirations aren’t often found in gay romance since men are more direct in their interactions.

oh my god

Mary echoed this thought by saying, “I don’t want to write about bitchy women.”

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I should be clear that I don’t know what the sexual orientations or gender identities of these people are. But just. Meoskop at Love in the Margins has a way more coherent takedown of this abomination and I recommend you read it. Regardless, I’ve seen this before, I see it a lot, and it’s this attitude that actually keeps me away from most m/m romance. I write it sometimes, sure. But for the most part I don’t wanna read it.

Look, I know about all the arguments that transformative works – out of which a lot of this springs – allow for queer readings/reimaginings of existing canon and that’s great. I buy that argument, because what I’m buying into is the possibility of it. But in practice, no, and that extends to m/m romance in general. In practice what we have is a tremendous amount of stroke material featuring white cisgender traditionally attractive mostly able-bodied gay men, written by and for the consumption of straight cisgender women. And you can’t claim to me that this is all striking a blow for queer equality and have me take you seriously.

“Redeeming” gay romantic relationships is patronizing. Focusing on cisgender male erotic relationships to the exclusion of other queer identities because you find that stuff hot is erasure. Reducing the significance of characters to gender and sexuality – especially in the interest of depicting erotic sexual activity – is fetishizing. I’m not the first person to say this, but now I’m gonna be another one. And sure, you can do the whole #NOTALLGAYROMANCE thing and you’d be technically correct, but when one of the largest m/m romance review sites clutches their collective pearls over any depiction of sexual activity that isn’t entirely cisgender male dudes with other cisgender male dudes, that’s at once gross and majorly indicative of some deep problems that have direct connections to not only ugly misogyny but to some very toxic homophobia:

The reduction of complex human identities to sex acts is essentializing. It’s dehumanizing. I’m guessing that most of us have heard someone at some point say something like “I have nothing against those gays. I just don’t want them flaunting it or anything.” Which really means I want them invisible. I don’t want to have to confront the fact that they exist because they threaten me.

I get that a lot of us like some porn, and I get that sometimes we just want our porn and we want to not have to perform sociocultural analysis of it before we make use of it. But that’s why I said what I said above. Write what you want. Read what you want. Just please, please be honest with yourself about what you’re doing.

And don’t you dare claim that you’re doing something progressive on behalf of populations to which you don’t belong. Because you aren’t. It’s not your progress to make. And I’m getting really tired of seeing straight cisgender women congratulate themselves for it.

[ETA] Read Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward. I mean, pretty much every writer should.

On triggers and warnings and those darn kids today

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I wasn’t going to do any significant blogging this week, because I’m scrambling to A) get an intensive summer course ready to teach next Monday, and B) prepare myself for Readercon, but the Jack Halberstam essay on trigger warnings that’s been floating around, and the various excellent responses, have sort of got me worked up and I want to say something. Probably nothing that hasn’t been said by others elsewhere and better. But this is me talking for a sec, not just about what Halberstam wrote but about this whole Thing in general.

One could criticize the essay on a number of levels, and people have. Natalia Cecire writes about the problems with the ways in which Halberstam discusses neoliberalism and approaches the emotional fallout of painful history. Ari (Tumblr: navigatethestream) writes about the deep problems involved in approaching activist culture from the perspective of the academy, and Halberstam’s use of examples of transmisogyny. And as usual, Robin James has some great stuff to say about legitimacy and the performance of “resilience”. So I’m not going to deal with this on those levels but instead go after some things that are smaller and a good bit simpler but that really, really irritated me because of my particular experience.

Full disclosure: I’m not cisgender or straight, but I’m white and ablebodied and American with a decidedly upper middle class background. I have privilege out the ass. There are so many marginalized experiences I can’t speak to and wouldn’t dare to speak for. That said: There are so, so many ways in which we talk about trauma and trigger warnings – that Halberstam is reproducing here – that really, really gross me the fuck out. Probably the best articulation I’ve seen of these feelings so far is Jaqui Shine’s excellent piece “What We Talk About When We Talk About Trigger Warnings”:

How we talk about trauma survivors is what’s most troubling to me in all of this. I hear people expressing contempt for who they think survivors are: fragile, weirdly entitled, narcissistic, pathetic, weak. With outrage, people ask angry, accusatory rhetorical questions that communicate their views: Do trauma survivors expect “us” to make the world safe for them or protect them from anything scary? Why should “we” be responsible for the fact that they can’t handle reality? Can’t survivors deal with their feelings and move on with their lives? Are they really so weak that they’ll fall apart if confronted with a difficult image or idea? This is what we think trauma survivors are like.

And it’s all so, so wrong. I don’t think anyone knows better than trauma survivors do that the world isn’t safe, that we can’t be truly protected from anything (except certain communicable diseases, via appropriate vaccinations). I don’t know what other people think constitutes reality, but for me it’s included burying both of my parents and repeatedly committing loved ones to terrifying psychiatric hospitals for their own safety. I’m pretty clear on what reality can look like.

We don’t get triggered because we’re weak; we get triggered because trauma responses are physiological. They’re not imaginary or only psychosomatic, and they’re not necessarily part of a lifetime condition.  Lots of people around you are trauma survivors, but you may not know it because we’re dealing with our feelings and, exactly as you say you want us to, moving on with our lives.

Read it.

Bullet points.

  • We gender trauma in order to dismiss it. So much of the discourse that represents anti-trigger warning positions contains deeply sexist/misogynist language, even if it’s not someone explicitly saying “man up”. Trauma survivors are characterized as weak, helpless, sniffling and constantly weepy, overly emotional, and actively protecting their status as victims as if it confers some kind of privilege. This is dangerously close to the derailing tactics that get used against marginalized populations every time they demand that pain and damage and oppression be recognized. It’s really not a road one wants to go down. You end up in a bad place. Halberstam does this, and it’s very disappointing to see:

    In a post-affirmative action society, where even recent histories of political violence like slavery and lynching are cast as a distant and irrelevant past, all claims to hardship have been cast as equal; and some students, accustomed to trotting out stories of painful events in their childhoods (dead pets/parrots, a bad injury in sports) in college applications and other such venues, have come to think of themselves as communities of naked, shivering, quaking little selves – too vulnerable to take a joke, too damaged to make one.

    Yeah, I’ve heard “you just can’t take a joke!” before. Don’t do that.

  • Not everyone’s ways of working through trauma are the same or will work for everyone, yet we keep talking about trauma as if that was a reasonable thing to expect. Know what? No, some people can’t just “get over it,” and if you’re saying that, you’re an asshole for demanding that they should, on your schedule. And some people can. And some people can but only with some things. And some people make a lot of progress and then get shoved back ten steps. Trauma/emotional injury/mental illness is individual, and recovery is individual. Everyone’s experience of oppressive social systems and processes is individual. We cannot and should not ever lose sight of the fact that psychology is not enough to understand this by, and it’s absolutely true that with a lot of the stuff around trigger warnings, we risk focusing far too much on the individual and ignoring the larger systems and institutions that perpetuate physical and symbolic violence. But we also need to recognize that there’s no hard and fast rule for any of this. Among these groups are vast individual differences of experience, and those differences need to be respected. We ignore that at our peril.
  • Emotions are not separate from the body. Emotions are embodied, and we all experience physiological reactions to emotion, at least to some degree. Yeah, you’re goddamn right, we talk about trauma like it’s a physical injury. It is. Everyone I’ve ever heard talk about their triggers has talked about them in physiological terms, because that’s usually what happens. This isn’t about “hurt feelings”, at least not for most people, I really do not think. This is about shaking hands, numb fingers, shallow breathing, sweaty palms, racing hearts. Even if it’s not about those things, it’s about being hurt badly enough that it interferes with your life for a while. I have a couple of triggers that are upsetting to differing degrees; sometimes they give me the physiological reactions above, sometimes they make me completely unable to deal with anything for the rest of the day, and sometimes they just force me to get away from whatever the trigger is and very firmly distract myself for a while. See? Not only are triggers different for each individual, but different people can experience multiple different triggers differently. I’m sorry, we don’t all necessarily fit your academic theories of trauma. That doesn’t make the pain illegitimate.
  • Trigger warnings are not about protecting our precious fee-fees from any pain whatsoever. They are about informed consent. This gets talked about a good bit in Shine’s piece above, but it’s worth emphasizing. I’m not saying they can’t be used poorly and I’m not saying none of the pro-TW discourse does that. I’m not saying there’s no uncomfortable, unhelpful narcissism happening anywhere here, or that TW discourse can’t, as Robin James points out, “legitimate some kinds of trauma, when experienced by the ‘right’ kind of people/on the ‘right’ kinds of bodies”. What I am saying is that when used correctly, trigger warnings make it easier to approach difficult and painful things because one can make a decision about whether or not one can deal with something at a particular time and how much of it one can take. Listen, I read some sick shit as part of the work on war and genocide I’ve done in graduate school. I’ve read and written about the worst, most twisted, most disgusting atrocities you can imagine, individual acts of horrifying violence in contexts of equally violent institutionalized hatred for the bodies against which the violence is being committed. I can handle that, most days. I deserve to make that choice for myself, where possible. Trigger warnings, ideally, open up discussion. They don’t close it off. They are not “censorship”. Stop calling them that.
  • At their best, trigger warnings are community-building. Halberstam is talking about trigger warnings as weapons for use in in-fighting, and I’m sure they get used that way. But in all of my experience – and yes, like a good sociologist I realize that my anecdote is a poor dataset on which to conclude anything – that’s not what I’ve primarily seen it doing. What I’ve seen it doing is connecting people with each other, creating profoundly meaningful bonds around shared pain and also bringing into play the recognition that different and even unfamiliar forms of pain are to be respected. That we have obligations to work together with greater respect and compassion precisely so that we’re better equipped to work in coalition to fight the oppressive social systems that assail us from all sides. I’ve seen it employed as a tool we can use to care for each other. As Jenny Davis writes:

    I argue that in contrast to the oft stated fear that technologies drive humans apart, or get in the way of meaningful relationships, the trigger warning is a means by which technological developments—or at least our reaction to technological developments—create an ethic of collective responsibility for the psychological well-being of one another.

    The trigger warning is not merely a curatorial tool, but a collective curatorial tool, provided by humans, for fellow humans. Content creators may not have you specifically in mind, but when they post trigger warnings, they do so for the general You, all of the Yous who make up the Us.

  • Deciding whose pain is legitimate and whose is to be belittled and ignored is ableist and shitty and you shouldn’t do it. Seriously. It’s not hard to not do.

I’m in full agreement with everyone I linked to above that it’s not that there are no issues around trigger warnings that need major attention and discussion and it’s not that Halberstam has no good points; it’s just that they’re obscured by way too many poorly thought-out claims, incorrect assumptions, and just plain… I’m sorry, but I can’t really think of anything to call it other than smugness. Halberstam comes off as smug and superior.

And it’s unhelpful. And it’s just like no.

“We can talk about the subjugation of women later, honey. Where’s my dinner?”

I linked to this in my last post, but I feel like I need to highlight it particularly because it remains one of the best essays on privilege that I’ve ever read: “The Distress of the Privileged”.

I think it’s worthwhile to spend a minute or two looking at the world from George Parker’s point of view: He’s a good 1950s TV father. He never set out to be the bad guy. He never meant to stifle his wife’s humanity or enforce a dull conformity on his kids. Nobody ever asked him whether the world should be black-and-white; it just was.

George never demanded a privileged role, he just uncritically accepted the role society assigned him and played it to the best of his ability. And now suddenly that society isn’t working for the people he loves, and they’re blaming him.

It seems so unfair. He doesn’t want anybody to be unhappy. He just wants dinner.

But even as we accept the reality of George’s privileged-white-male distress, we need to hold on to the understanding that the less privileged citizens of Pleasantville are distressed in an entirely different way. (Margaret Atwood is supposed to have summed up the gender power-differential like this: “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.”)

George deserves compassion, but his until-recently-ideal housewife Betty Parker (and the other characters assigned subservient roles) deserves justice. George and Betty’s claims are not equivalent, and if we treat them the same way, we do Betty an injustice.

Thoughts on Lent from a solitary practitioner

The kingdom of God does not come with signs to be observed or with visible display, nor will people say, Look! Here! or, See there! For behold, the kingdom of God is within you and among you. – Luke 17:20-21

I missed Palm Sunday this year, and ironically only realized it was Ash Wednesday the other week on account of a great post by a friend of mine who also identifies as an Atheist. This is one of the things that happens when you’re a Christian (though I think some people would contest that self-identification, and sometimes I do as well) but you’re no longer – for all intents and purposes – a churchgoer, when you respect and even enjoy the measured meditativeness of the liturgical calendar but don’t have the practical aspect of it to mark the days.

So, Lent. I like Lent. I realize that I may be a rarity there, given that I don’t especially relish feelings of guilt (I have them, I just really don’t enjoy them). Nor do I enjoy self-deprivation. I’m also pretty bad at it. I also think these things are, by and large, a tremendous waste of time, to the degree that they’re motivated by any extended meditation on just what an incredibly awful person you are. So you’d think that I’d be counted out of most of the things that define the season for most religious people who care about the season at all.  But I like Lent. I like Lent because of what I’ve picked out of it, held onto.

Lent is really about waiting.

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