Feminism, My 23-Year-Old Self, and I

First, some back story:

As some of you might be aware, I record a monthly podcast called The Writer and the Critic with my dear friend, Ian Mond. We talk about books and the speculative fiction scene and, occasionally, Other Things. A couple of months ago, inspired by some thought-provoking listener feedback regarding the differences in the way boys and girls read, and the effects this might have on their adult selves, Ian and I wandered into a discussion about the “default male” worldview that permeates our culture. As an off-the-cuff illustration, I observed that our cultural semiotic language employs the same basic stick figure to signify both “human” and “male” and that this stick figure actually needs to be altered in order to signify “female”. But that it is used all the time to include female, effectively, as a subset of male. Even though — and this is the important part — the stick figure itself has absolutely no markers of gender one way or another. It’s a basic symbol for “human being”. That’s it. But we don’t have a separate, slightly altered stick figure which means “male”. One serves for both. Male is the default. Female is the other, the altered, the subset. This is the dominant mindset that boys and girls grow up navigating: boys see a symbol for human as being synonymous with themselves; girls are forced to “insert self here” whenever they see the human/male symbol. Language is powerful. Semiotics possibly even more so. The small illustration of the stick figures serves to illuminate a whole lot more about gender politics in the wider culture.

We talked for twenty minutes or so about this stuff. I drew stick figures which, while not lending themselves well to an audio production, did freak Ian out quite a bit. And that I think you can hear. If you want to listen to the whole conversation, it’s at the start of this episode. Obviously, it’s all off the cuff and if I was writing an essay, I’d be a lot more thoughtful and less general in some of things I said. (The implication that there is a gender binary, for instance. Not good.) But it is one of the more interesting and important non-book conversations we’ve had, and I thought about it a lot over the days that followed.

femaleAs did some of our listeners, apparently, one of whom put me onto the idea of distilling the conversation down into a logo of sorts. Which I did. I also may have spent just a leeeeetle too much time setting up a Zazzle webstore for the podcast. Actually, I originally just wanted my own t-shirt (and mug and magnet) as well as some stickers and badges to give away at our upcoming live recording at Continuum 8, but Ian and I thought it was a good idea to make the store public so other people could buy merch as well if they wanted to. Hell, we might even make enough from our minuscule margins to pay for our Podbean hosting. We can but dream.

Anyway, we announced the opening of the store on last month’s episode of The Writer and the Critic and I wrote something about it in the shownotes and included the badge image. I like it, if I do say so myself. It’s simple and direct and, hopefully, conversation-starting. As I said in the shownotes, “Why is the stick figure female? The more important question is, why is it male?” (And no, I don’t have any real idea as to what a male-specific stick figure would be. Stop asking to see the drawings.)

So that’s the back story.

Yesterday, a lengthy comment was left on the page for last month’s episode by someone with whom I’ve been friends since my early twenties. (I’m 38 now. We’re talking pre-internet time, kids.) Her feedback was essentially a primer about the purpose and function of language and symbols, which ended with the following:

On an Exit Sign the stick figure represents all humans; it is not an exit for men only. On a toilet block, the stick figure is male. It is universally understood to be male without being vulgar. We don’t want any confusion when it comes to public toilets, do we?

Why is the stick figure male? The simple answer is, “Why not?”

By the way, I noticed you used traditional symbolic colouring for your “female stick figure” – red or pink for female.

Her comment felt a little condescending in assuming that Ian and I didn’t actually know how symbols worked but, as I said, I’ve known her for a long time and she is a very blunt person, so I let that go. It didn’t seem like she had actually listened to the previous month’s episode (or maybe even this one) as she was reiterating some of the points we had in fact made about language and semiotics, and was possibly commenting solely on what was in the shownotes. Fair enough. I replied in what I thought was a friendly manner, pointing out that pink was actually a colour traditionally linked to boys until the early 20th Century (being a diluted form of the “masculine” red), and stating that, while I understood how language/symbols worked, the thrust of the conversation I’d had with Ian went deeper than that: “What I find interesting is the dissection of language, and of its subtext, meaning and evolution.”

Her follow-up began with:

I do not believe every one who creates a symbol has a gender agenda. Symbols are graphic designs created to convey information in the most immediate and easily recognizable way possible. I don’t believe there is a worldwide conspiracy to disenfranchise women through the use of graphic art.

She again offered an explanation of how symbols worked, stated that she comes from “a visual arts background and [doesn’t] view the world in terms of gender politics as you appear to now do,” and concluded with a P.S. in the form of a joke she thought I “might enjoy”:

Q: Why can’t men get mad cow disease?
A: Because men are pigs.

I definitely bristled. If she had indeed listened to the podcast, then she seemed to be ignoring all the complexities of the conversation in favour of re-framing what we actually said into some kind of hysterical conspiracy theory. (But, again, I suspected she hadn’t listened.) It was cheap and simplistic, and I told her so. In the context of the discussion at hand, her joke felt like it was being offered with the implication that I would like it because, of course, with all my feminist nonsense, I must be anti-male, and I told her that was a cheap shot as well.

Now, in the harsh light of retrospect, I wonder if this was the case — at least with the joke part. I have known and liked this woman for the better part of two decades. As well as being blunt, she’s given to scatty, corny humour and wordplay. It’s possible she really was offering the joke as way of lightening her reply at the end, that she was making fun of the idea of the stereotypical man-hating feminist, rather than suggesting that I was one. I honestly can’t tell. What I do know is, if I wasn’t friends with her, I would not have given a second thought to her intentions. Nor would I care so much. (It’s not so easy to write off the words of friends, as it turns out.)

In any case, I was done. She didn’t reply and I decided to email her directly in the morning to talk properly out of the public sphere.  Except this morning there was another comment, beginning:

Kirstyn, it saddens me that you appear to have lost your sense of humour and resort to personal attacks when all I’m trying to do is explain a bit about graphic design. So I’ll let you have the last word.

(Yes, I see the irony.) “Here’s an article I found that you might find interesting,” she continues, following up with an entire cut-and-paste of the text of an old 1400 word article I’d written back in 1996 for a Sydney fanzine called The Mentor which is now archived online. Called “A Matter of Sex(ism!)”, the piece was my response to a really quite awful diatribe about how awful men were by someone called Lyn Elvey that I’d come across in a previous issue. I was twenty-three years old, just out of university and brimming with Important Ideas About The World. Seeing it there in the comments stream this morning, I was initially at a loss for words. Had she posted it in hopes of embarrassing me with something stupid I said sixteen years ago? Or did she want to chide me for losing my way along with my sense of humour? It was admittedly with some trepidation that I began to read those long-forgotten words of my twenty-three year old self. But it was a wonderful experience. It really, really was. Not only was I not embarrassed, I was proud of those words. Oh sure, that twenty-three year old was full of bluff and bravado, and she got a few things out of whack, but she was damn fierce.

I’ve pulled the relevant page with Lyn Elvey’s article (from Issue 88) and the one with mine (Issue 89) if you’re really interested in reading them in full, but here are some choice excerpts:

Lyn Elvey: Where is the man who’s dream in life is a room wholly dedicated to being a library, who uses a diary for his personal life, and who thinks there is more to life than work? Who is looking to his retirement not with foreboding but as a time to do the multitude of hobbies, interests and travelling he wants to do with the partner of his choice. Where is the man who wants a companion of his own age and experience rather than a dolly bird twenty years younger (who is not after his body, let me tell you). He doesn’t exist.

Kirstyn McDermott (age 23): [I] am in a very happy relationship with (horror of horrors) a man – a man whose dream in life is a room dedicated to a library, who does think there is more to life than work, who is intelligent and can commit himself to plans more than two weeks in advance (yes Lyn, he does exist, oh really and truly he does — I’ve pinched him!).

LE: Am I a feminist, or have I met all the wrong men? I can’t help feeling that women are much more the superior sex. We live longer and manage better single than married (married men live longer!). We are more realistic, practical and let me tell you from daily experience, better drivers. And if you don’t agree with me, why do authors keep writing stories about future societies with women in charge? Because it is the logical conclusion for the superior sex, of course. Rather than being a frightening prospect, it is the golden vista that one can hope and dream for. Do you think women are going to spend multi-millions on armaments rather than food or clothes?

KMcD: It’s because of attitudes like those expressed by Lyn Elvey … that I have voluntarily exiled myself from the contemporary feminist movement. Too many women these days are going overboard, claiming superiority over men instead of demanding equality. Is it any wonder that “Feminist” has become the new “F-word” of the nineties? To purport the myth of female superiority is as equally destructive to society as it would be to assert male dominance. All the (valid) feminist arguments about psychological oppression and self-fulfilling prophecy would be just as applicable to men were they to become the inferior sex.

LE: As a final argument to the “logic” of men, in several Asian countries it is the policy to restrict family sizes. Because they value men, these societies have “disposed” of the baby girls and only keep the sons. So now they have populations of adult males in their twenties, thirties and forties with many less females about. They can find wives because there are not enough to go around. What a brilliant piece of logic!!! Particularly when they want sons to carry on the name, etc. Who did they think were going to have them?

KMcD: I think Lyn’s “final argument” concerning male (il)logic needs to be set in its proper context. The reason girl babies are often secretly disposed of in China and some other Asian countries is more an economic one than anything else. It should be pointed out that this practice does not usually occur in richer families (usually because money has a way of talking itself around the law), but is prevalent amongst the poor. The reason for the preference of sons is not primarily because they will carry on the family name, but because they do not require a large, expensive dowry to be provided upon their marriage, and because a son is expected to look after his parents in their old age. Quite literally, poor families cannot afford a daughter. It is hardly an example of male logic, but of cultural logic.

LE: Like most women I am an organised, multi -tasking individual, able to juggle a busy working life with a large range of commitments and a good circle of friends. I do my utmost to do my work as quickly and as efficiently as possible and to keep my “customers” happy. I endeavour to keep in touch with as many of my friends as possible, meeting them for meals or just having a chat. And from my list of commitments above you can see I devote time to a number of other causes. So, I ask you, why can’t men be like that too?

KMcD: In short, Lyn Elvey’s article was sexism, pure and simple, and I refuse to be associated with her caricature of womanhood. Sure, there is lot – and I mean a lot – wrong with our society, but the solution will never lie in inverting the problem. Women better than men? The last time I heard something so ridiculous was when men were running around claiming that they were the superior sex. The answer is really simple, boys and girls. Can anybody say “symbiosis”?

Back on The Writer and the Critic site, I sent my last reply to my friend. I don’t know if she’ll bother to respond — or even if she’s still my friend — but I thanked her for posting that old article of mine and told her that I was happy to stand by those words of my twenty-three year old self.  The views Elvey held mirrored a lot of the extreme feminism with which I had been bombarded during university, and I was — and still am — wearied, angered and frustrated by them. I associated them with feminism and then I disassociated feminism from myself. But sixteen years is a long time, and my own views are necessarily less simplistic than they were back then. And thank goodness for that. Sixteen years would be a long time for a person’s mind to remain unaltered. These days, I realise that the feminist movement is made up of many, many different viewpoints, and that none of its extremist proponents represent it as a whole. Base level: feminism simply holds the view that all genders are of equal worth and should be granted equal rights and opportunities. Full stop. If you believe that, you’re a feminist. (And yes, I consider my friend a feminist. I don’t know what she considers herself.)

Ironically, I told her, the attitude I held at age twenty-three was similar to one which seems to be (sadly) prevalent today: if you call yourself a feminist, if you talk about gender politics and inequality between the sexes, if you suggest that (white, straight) male privilege exists and needs to be interrogated and dismantled, then you are obviously one of those humourless, man-hating, female supremacists who are just as bad as the system they would like to overthrow. It’s an attitude I am glad I no longer hold. I’m glad that I’ve changed. I hope that I will continue to change. I would only be embarrassed by what I thought sixteen years ago, if I thought exactly the same way today. The world is changing so damn fast. It’s scary and exciting and breathtaking, and who the hell would I be if I didn’t at least try to change with it? Someday I’m sure I’ll be telling the kids to get off my virtual lawn and talking about how swell it was back in the day before the world all went to hell in a handbasket, but today is not that day.

So, I started thinking about my twenty-three year old self, and about what my seventy-three year old self might think of me as I am now, and I decided that hope I make her laugh fondly, and roll her eyes, and remember what it was like to be thirty-eight. Above all, I hope I make her proud. And then I started to think of the things I would say to my twenty-three year old self — which would probably make her roll her eyes and laugh, though not as fondly — and my reply to my friend stopped being my reply to my friend, and became something I decided to write a blog post about instead. It happens.

For what it’s worth, Kirstyn Maria McDermott, age 23, listen up:

You’re awesome. Really, you are. You’re passionate and you stand up for what you believe in and you don’t like it when people try to tell you what to think, how to act or who you should be based on reductionist reasoning. You’re also smart and you like to come at things on your own terms, after you’ve thought about them a lot. (Sometimes, a little too much. You should work on that.)

But here’s something you don’t want to hear: the world is really, really complicated. I know you think you have a whole lot of stuff worked out right now, but actually you’ve only just started. And you’re never, ever going to finish. That’s what life is like. Just when you think you have a worldview nailed, some pesky fact, experience, opinion or argument is going to come along to skittle things. Not completely, not always — you do get better at this, I promise — but enough to make you realise that issues are rarely black and white, that the world and its inhabitants are complex and nuanced and don’t like to be put in a pigeon hole any more than you do. That’s all right. That’s how it works. The day you sit back and decide that you’re done, that you have all the shit worked out and you never have to learn anything or refine your opinions ever again, that’s the day you know you’re in trouble. Seriously.

That thing in your piece about China, for instance. That’s funny. You’re going to realise just how funny in another sixteen years. I can’t believe you can’t see it now, actually. It’s *right there* in that naiive — but passionate — little paragraph you wrote, how gender is intrinsically entwined with economics, how women have been traditionally valued to market, how what you call “cultural logic” is thoroughly meshed with “economic logic” and “gender logic” and a whole lot more besides. How can you not see it yet? Never mind, I’ll wait. Then I’ll laugh with you. And give you a big hug.

(Also, that guy you’re with? Not going to last, sorry. But don’t fret, there’s the most amazing man in your future. Seriously, A-MAY-ZING. You’ll love him. I do.)

me, age 23, with rats, mad hair and a WHITE shirt

Me, age 23, with rats, mad hair and — gasp — a WHITE shirt

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Girls and Consequences

On the back of a recent SF Signal Mind Meld which asked a bunch of very smart women what genre books they would recommend to teenage girls, participant Stina Leicht penned some additional thoughts about the types of books that are often seen as “suitable” for girls to be reading as opposed to the types of books she thinks they should be reading, and why. It’s a good post and Leicht has some very interesting things to say about girls and growing up and the importance of young adult fiction in their lives.

One of the points she makes evokes the familiar argument that a person’s teenage years are where they get to experiment, make mistakes and generally practice how to be an adult, so they’ll be better at being adults when the time inevitably comes, and that fiction is an excellent — and safe — space in which to learn and practice. She also mentions the fact that teenage boys are usually more inclined to indulge in high-risk behaviours than girls of the same age, and suggests that it is therefore more important for girls to have access to “dangerous” books when they are growing up.

But it was a footnote to her post that really struck  me. In questioning why boys court risks more than girls, Leicht dismisses the oft-cited hormones as the culprit and instead offers the following suggestion:

It’s because girls run head-long into consequences much, much sooner than boys do. They are barraged with the knowledge that the world is a dangerous place for them specifically at an early age. I have memories of such information filtering down to me at age eight through ten. So much so, that I went through a phase of denial. I took on male behaviors, thinking that would make me safe. (I was a tomboy.) I also went through a phase of not wanting to be female — not because I thought I was mistakenly born a girl, but because I was beginning to understand what was ahead and that the world did not like females. In fact, society at large might even hate females.

And then yesterday, I read a fantastic article about gender roles and fantasy which Kate Elliott wrote for Women in SF Month. Elliott talks about growing up as a tomboy in a rural community and how, at age twelve, her Language Arts teacher — who sounds amazing — asked the class to complete a sentence beginning, “I wish  . . .”:

I wrote: I wish I was a boy.

These days, that sentence could be interpreted in many ways. It could have been then, too, of course, but the conversation about gender in rural Oregon was a far more limited one. What she thought I don’t know. But I do know she called me aside and asked me about it privately. What did it mean to me that I said that? she asked me with concern.

What it meant to me was that it wasn’t worth being a girl.

Both these stories rang so true to me. I was a tomboy for most of my childhood. Thankfully, I have a wonderful mother who I can’t ever remember saying that I couldn’t/shouldn’t do something or like something or be something just because I was a girl. (Once or twice, when I was being particularly gross, she might have expressed an exasperated admonishment that I wasn’t being very ladylike. Huh? Who cared about being a lady!) I do remember being told such things by lots of other people, though — including some male relatives. And the consequences stuff? Although I didn’t think I ever consciously took that on board when I was a kid . . .  I reckon it did manage to seep in. And I reckon I reacted to it just the way Stina Leicht did, by rebelling against everything girlish.

These days I’m constantly unpacking my thoughts about the colour pink, and my newly rekindled love of cooking, and whether or not to keep shaving my legs, and so many other things. Trying to work out how much of what I love and/or hate comes from a genuine personal response rather than a habitual reaction to/against The Feminine. (A process which, of course, is complicated by the recognition that those anti-feminine reactions are really just as “genuine” or otherwise as anything else I feel.)

Red Roses Doc MartensAnd here’s a odd thing that just popped into my head: I wear boots. Almost exclusively. Mainly flat-but thick-soled boots like Fluevogs or Doc Martens. (I adore my rose-embroidered Docs. Just look at them. Look at them. Now wipe the drool from your chin. Don’t worry, I’m doing it too and I already own a couple of pairs!*) Occasionally I wear more, ahem, ladylike boots with modest chunky heels or height boosted by platforms. I can’t remember the last time I owned a pair of normal women’s shoes with the standard pointy heels. I’ve never owned or worn heels more than two-and-a-half inches in height (platforms excluded — it’s the gradient that kills me) and I probably never will. I feel comfortable in boots. Often, I joke with friends about not wanting to wear any type of footwear that won’t allow me to break into a sprint at a moment’s notice. Except it’s not really a joke. Not even half a joke. When I say, “I feel comfortable in boots”, I don’t just mean physical comfort. I mean, “I feel safe in boots. I can run away if I need to.”

Because, in my head, wearing spiked stiletto heels isn’t safe. Because being a girl isn’t safe. And that’s precisely the sort of unconscious internalisation I’m talking about. Now, it’s not as though I go about my days with ears pricked and eyes darting about like a gazelle en route to the watering hole, but this is a genuine psychological underpinning that has helped define my choice of footwear as much as it has influenced my decision never to accept an invitation to an otherwise all male NFL drunken victory party.

Because being a girl isn’t safe.

This is a subject I want to come back to, but I need to think about it some more. Because it’s definitely worth thinking about.

* It was even a minor struggle to talk about my beloved boots like that because, as we all know, talking about shoes is the height of girlishness. See? The unpacking never ends.

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Bad Feminist: An Unexpected Case Study

Over the past few months of my blog hiatus, I did a lot of thinking about feminism and gender issues, with particular attention paid to writing, authors and the publishing industry. After all, there has been a lot to provoke such thoughts over the past year: the Australian Women’s Writers Challenge, the announcement of the Stella Prize, the now infamous comments by V.S. Naipaul, published statistics about gender imbalance in book reviewing, and much, much more. I collected links and left a prodigious amount of tabs open in my browser, planning to write a series of posts about this sort of stuff — once I actually did start posting again, of course. Then a couple of weeks ago, I deleted them all. I didn’t have time for it, I admonished myself. It was part of the Catching Up that was actually stopping me from getting back into blogging — which was something that I really did miss.

srsly stfu

Because … oh, just look at it all. All of the research, all of the compiling of supporting evidence and illustrative links, all of the careful balancing acts and fine-tooth-combery which would be required to ensure what I wrote would be taken as a serious and informed contribution to cultural debate, rather than viewed as the subjective and unsubstantiated rants of yet another jealous, whining girl-scribbler who should srsly stfu because men have it hard too … ugh. It was exhausting just to contemplate. And besides, what good would it really do? Who was I to say anything anyway? Srsly, Kirstyn. Just STFU. You have more pressing things to do.

But, lo and behold, over the past week, my briefly pristine browser has once again become a petri dish for open tabs. Tabs which demand more than simply a quick tweet with accompanying snappy or snarky comment. And I started getting that strange, tight, swirly thing happening in my guts again. That self-defeating inner to-and-fro which goes a little something like this:

Interesting! I should blog about that. I have something to contribute!

Hmm, I should gather more information first. What I have to say might not stand up under scrutiny. 

No, screw that. It’s my opinion. I’m allowed to have an opinion. And I’m willing to stand corrected and engage in robust debate!

Hmm, am I willing to stand corrected by Teh Interwebs? Engage in robust debate with Teh Comments of Doom?

Okay, so I need to find several specific examples to illustrate the points I want to make. Plus, I should find some counter examples to show that I’m not making blanket statements and that I acknowledge that the issue is complicated. I might need footnotes and a bibliography. And I really need to think about the tone and wording because I want to be perfectly clear and don’t want to inadvertently step on undeserving toes.  In the meantime, I’ll just leave that tab open so I don’t forget that I want to come back to it. And these couple of tabs next to it as well, because they kind of relate, but actually really deserve some thoughtful commentary one their own. Which would require more gathering of substantiating evidence.

Hmm. That’s gonna end up being a really long post.

I should break it into smaller posts. A series!  A series on a theme!

Sure. Because I HAVE ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD.

Which is generally when my good intentions slink away to sulk and what I’ve thought of as my guilty conscience sits her smug self  down to gloat over all those open, unremarked upon tabs. Whatevah, guilty conscience, I’m busy enough as it is and there are heaps of people already talking about this stuff. It doesn’t have to be my fight.

Then yesterday I read this blog post by Cat Valente in which she bounces off the recent Christopher Priest/Clarke Award brouhaha to discuss how men and women commentators are treated oh so very differently when they express their opinions online:

… it’s more than lolz, he’s got balls of brass, I could never get away with those blognanigans. I couldn’t, of course, even if I wanted to. But neither could almost any other woman writer or blogger I can think of. Go after popular SF writers and a respected award? She’d have gotten death threats, rape threats, comments telling her everything from shut up and make [unnamed internet male] a sandwich to wishing she’d be raped to death because that would shut her right up.

shut your whore mouthOffering several links by way of example, she talks at length about the types of double standards, misogyny and false equivalences that were the subject of so very many of the tabs and links I’d been hoarding. Her post echoes much of my own thoughts on these same subjects, including how a female writer might have been treated had she voiced the opinion that Christopher Priest did. “The fact is, to be a woman online is to eventually be threatened with rape and death,” Cat notes bluntly. “On a long enough timeline, the chances of this not occurring drop to zero.” This is, of course, nowhere near the first time I’ve come across such sentiments. Some of the links I jettisoned a couple of weeks ago included food blogger Shawna James Ahern discussing the hateful comments she receives (via  John Scalzi talking about the types of comments he doesn’t get), Seanan McGuire detailing the vile unsolicited emails sent her way when Amazon made the paperback edition of her latest novel available before the kindle version, Helen Lewis and Laurie Penny reporting in the New Statesmen and the Independent respectively — and attracting the precise flavour of commentary with which their articles were concerned. But towards the end of her post, Cat Valente says something that struck me harder than it should have:

That’s the line I walk, and most female authors and commentators walk. On one side of it is a silence which we can’t afford and on the other are the blowback and threats, which come quietly and secretly through email or boldly and baldly in comments.

Walking a line. That’s exactly how I feel. That’s what the strange, tight, swirly thing in my guts is called. It’s not being overwhelmed by the amount of time and effort it would take to write an intelligent, considered and substantiated post on any particular subject. (Because I haven’t done that before.) It’s fear, plain and embarrassingly simple. And it’s really difficult for me to acknowledge, let alone admit, which is possibly why it’s taken this long to work up to it.

Because here’s the thing. In the offline world, I consider myself a  smart, confident, capable woman. A proud feminist. A good feminist. And I’ve worked to get there. I constantly push past my innate introversion and insecurities to make sure I actually engage with people at social gatherings, at conferences, at conventions. I voice my opinions and listen to the opinions of others. I volunteer to be on discussion panels and committees, and I’ve helped run conventions. Hell, I’ve convened a huge — and hugely successful — convention. I have my own small business that I built from scratch. I don’t shy away from controversial discussions. I don’t retreat into the background when Men Are Speaking. I don’t mind expressing disagreement or opposition to what someone has said and I will point out — as diplomatically as the situation requires — if they’re possibly making a dick of themselves. Most of the time, I know how to pick my battles. I’ve verbally defended myself (and occasionally my female friends) in awkward or quasi-threatening situations. More than once, I’ve gotten myself out of an actually threatening physical situation. I get scared — a lot — but I get through it and I try not to let fear put too many barriers around my life and my ambitions. Particularly not that special icky kind of fear that tries to tell me I can’t possibly do something simply because I am female. Fuck that shit, for reals.

sewn shutAnd yet. And yet. Here I am, putting aside and ultimately putting off writing blog posts about Feminist-Issues-Oh-My because … what? I’m scared? Surely not. Me? Really? Really. That put me into a mental tailspin yesterday. Why on earth should I be scared of saying something on my blog that I would be quite happy to say to someone in person? Why? Because it’s not the same. Not by a long shot. In person, the vast majority of us are actually quite civilised. We can have a discussion, even a heated argument, but that’s where it’s generally gonna end — with an exchange of words and both parties going their separate ways at worst believing the other to be an irredeemable moron. It’s not going to end with complete strangers bailing me up en masse and yelling at me for hours about how fucking stupid I am for saying what I said, not to mention how I’m so fat and ugly that no one will listen to me anyway, and making such a noise that passers by come over to yell at me some more and tell me how I have no idea what I’m talking about and I wouldn’t know what real inequality was and maybe I should go live in Afghanistan if I care so much about women’s rights, and how I’m just a frigid bitch and should just get myself laid, or better yet someone should teach me a lesson and rape me. Rape me to death.

(And if you think I’m exaggerating, just go read the comments to some of those articles I mentioned above.)

Because, you know, if all that did happen in the offline world, if I saw it happening to women all the time … I don’t think I’d be game to open my mouth in public nearly as often as I do. I would walk in the silence that Cat Valente talks about, just as I seem to be walking in the silence online. And that realisation scares me more than anything else.

The realisation that, online, I’m a Bad Feminist.

Lately, I find myself intimidated by gendered power structures that, offline, would scarcely faze me, and I allow myself to remain intimidated. I don’t speak about things that bother me, things that I object to, things that I believe should be discussed. I tiptoe around the edges of controversial issues, leaving occasional comments in the safer space of other people’s blogs, or sending brief and ephemeral missives into the twittersphere. Because I don’t need to contribute, not really.  Because, despite the fact that I am a woman and a writer, this doesn’t have to be my fight. Because if I am quiet and polite and accommodating, then I can simply go about my business without risk of bruising or breakage. Subconsciously I’ve managed to internalise a very real chilling effect, all the while believing otherwise.

It’s sobering to step back now and realise that, online, I don’t recognise myself. Or rather, I all too clearly recognise the girl I used to be. A lonely, insecure girl who knew all too well what it was like to be bullied, to have no friends, to be the target of gender-specific mockery, to be always on the outer. A girl who just want to be liked. By everyone. A girl who knew how to keep her mouth shut unless she was making jokes. A girl who, quite honestly, I thought I’d left behind many years ago. The fact that this blog has been one huge swathe of silence for more than half a year, despite my obsessive collecting and collating of Links Relevant To My Interests, speaks volumes to that bit of self-deception. And it’s sickening to think that it really took so little to stitch me back into her skin: I haven’t experienced such brutal online abuse personally; it has been enough to witness it happen to others. To witness and to not speak about it. Because my opinion wouldn’t make a difference; I could let others speak for me. I didn’t pick any battles — because, really, it didn’t have to be my fight.

Bad, Bad Feminist.

All that needs to change. I don’t precisely know how — seems there’s a lot of toxic crap to expel from my overly complacent mind yet again — but pressing the Publish button on this post feels like a good place to start. Because everyone needs to call themselves on their own bullshit from time to time.

And because, yes,  it is my fight.

I am a feminist

Not so much walking, as talking . . .

So I read this article about the “SlutWalk” phenomenon today in the Sydney Morning Herald. I wasn’t going to blog about the whole SlutWalk thing, because my thoughts are complicated and the issue deserves some fairly nuanced treatment and I really don’t have a day to spare writing a complicated, nuanced blog post right now. Besides, there are other people already doing a good job of it and I’m sure you all know how to google.

But I read the article because someone tweeted it and then — stupidly — I started to read the comments. Here’s a selection of some the more offensive examples of what is clearly a major theme among the commenters:

“My dear old mother used to say: “They that lack respect for themselves and throw themsleves away, get treaded upon”. Smart lady my old mother.” (posted by: The Beak)

“But it is funny, isn’t it, how for the most part men don’t feel the irresistible urge to frolic around in public in skimpy clothing.” (posted by: Lee McSwain)

“Fine, dress like a slut. It’s a liberal democracy. But don’t expect to be taken seriously like women who don’t dress like sluts.” (posted by: Jason Decliner)

“Sure express yourself, but take care for how some men are wired, and may express themselves, if provoked. Give their nature as much respect as you give your own.” (posted by: AuDasign1)

“What is also ironically not acknowledged is that those who do dress provocatively are also often into power, the projection of sexual power. Unfortunately those who live by the sword sometimes die by the sword. So many of these comments take me back to Wimminism 101. What a nostalgia trip!” (posted by: adamjc)

I’m still not intending to write a lengthy post about the whole SlutWalk thing. (Seriously, I do not have the time.) But here’s the thought that always pops in my brain whenever I read tired old comments like those above: surely men should feel insulted almost as much as women.

I mean, seriously, guys. I don’t have a penis, I’ve never had a penis, and I don’t expect to acquire a penis anytime soon. But if I did have a penis and was essentially being told that — because of said penis — all it took to provoke me into committing a sexual assault against another person was a pair of tight pants or a short skirt or six inch heels or — gasp! — a flash of cleavage, that in fact I wouldn’t be able to control myself in the face of such titillation, I’d be feeling pretty fucking pissed off right now.

And what I really can’t understand is why it is so often men who make such comments. Not exclusively, sure, there are always women  eager to tout the “just can’t help themselves” line as well, but it comes with such casual regularity from men as to baffle the mind. Or, at least, my mind. When I come across a derogatory generalisation regarding my gender, it makes me furious. (You might have noticed.) And this generalisation is surely one of the vilest.

You are a man. You cannot control yourself. You are a slave to your base desires. You are not to be trusted. You are not safe. That thing in your pants? It’s a loaded weapon utterly beyond your ability to command. You are not a man — you are a threat to be avoided, appeased and guarded against.

It’s just awful. And it certainly doesn’t describe any of the men I’ve known and loved in my life. (It doesn’t even describe any of the men I’ve known and loathed.) Yet I’ve heard some of the men I’ve loved spout similar, if sometimes diluted, sentiments to those found in the comments section of the SMH article and this I do not understand. You are tarring your own gender. You do not get a Get Out of Jail Free card. You do not get to be the self-proclaimed golden exception to the vile rule. Think better. Expect better. Demand better.

Yes, this a feminist issue. But, like so many other feminist issues, it’s not just about women.

And that’s my vague non-post about whole SlutWalk thing.

SlutWalk Shoes

Tender Morsels not for Feminists?

Tender Morsels

A couple of days ago, Bitch Media published their recommended list of 100 Young Adult Books for the Feminist Reader which — at the time — included Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan. I’ve long admired Margo’s short fiction and was very impressed by Tender Morsels, her first novel, in which she retells the “Snow White, Rose Red” fairy tale cycle in a way that is distinctly Lanaganesque. So it was great to see it get a mention on a reading list aimed at people “looking to buy a book for your favorite teenage girl or just looking to cuddle up with a powerful story featuring teenage characters”. (The question of why you wouldn’t also consider buying these books for your favourite teenage boy, is one best left aside for now.)

This morning I discovered that Tender Morsels has been removed from the list, following concerns raised in the comments section of the original announcement, along with two other books. Here’s Bitch Media’s explanation of their decision:

A couple of us at the office read and re-read Sisters Red, Tender Morsels and Living Dead Girl this weekend. We’ve decided to remove these books from the list — Sisters Red because of the victim-blaming scene that was discussed earlier in this post, Tender Morsels because of the way that the book validates (by failing to critique or discuss) characters who use rape as an act of vengeance, and Living Dead Girl because of its triggering nature. We still feel that these books have merit and would not hesitate to recommend them in certain instances, but we don’t feel comfortable keeping them on this particular list.

I have read neither Sisters Red nor Living Dead Girl so I won’t comment on those, except to say that while triggering issues are certainly valid reasons not to choose to read a book — and Tender Morsels would certainly face that problem as well — surely this is not grounds to remove an otherwise commendable book from a recommended reading list? Wouldn’t a notation beside the titles which might contain potential triggers be a more appropriate and inclusive approach? Sexual violence is a central issue in feminist discourse and ignoring works that depict such violence, rather than simply flagging them to allow for individual reader choice, does no one any favours in my opinion.

Which brings us to the reasons behind Tender Morsels being dropped. [Significant plot spoilers to follow; you have been warned.] The day after the original list was posted, the following comment was left by a reader:

You are actually recommending Tender Morsels? What is wrong with you people? I didn’t think Bitch was the kind of place that supported rape as vengeance. That book is absolute crap on every possible level and you should be ashamed for putting it on the same list as Speak.

The scene being referred to here is the gang-rapes (via use of vengeful magic) of five men who had themselves earlier raped and abused the novel’s protagonist, Liga. The magic is inadvertently wielded by her daughter, Urdda, who was herself conceived in the original assault. In a lengthier subsequent comment, the same reader went on to condemn the “moral ambiguity” of the novel and its failure to mention “guilt or accountability” or even acknowledge that “this was a bad thing that happened”:

There’s no mention of the men period; once that scene ends the victims disappear completely from the story. And of course there’s the complete 180 in presentation between the mother’s solemn first-person accounts of her own attack and the rape-homunculi’s joyful descriptions of their violence.

True, it’s a difficult and complicated scene. Tender Morsels is a difficult and complicated book. For the most part, you don’t “enjoy” reading it. Not the way you enjoy eating ice cream, or listening to your favourite music, or even riding a roller coaster. It’s not a safe book, but it is a rewarding book. Intelligent and thought-provoking and full of depth. It’s also a book about women and girls, about the social narratives that have defined and continue to define their lives, and about the power that is denied to them, wielded over them, claimed by them. In my opinion, it’s exactly the kind of book that should be on a feminist reading list. Because good literature is not safe. It questions default ideologies and paradigms, undermines the status quo, and makes you think about issues you might otherwise never have considered. Kind of like feminism itself, hey?

Also problematic is the fact that Tender Morsels made the list in the first place via “a recommendation to us from a few feminists” according to Bitch Media. And yet, it seems that it took only one public complaint from a reader to have it removed. This despite the fact that a second reader responded promptly with an interpretation in defense of the book, and that the original complaint came from someone who quite obviously disliked the book as a whole — describing it as “absolute crap on every possible level” — and not simply because of the rape scene at the end, the authorial politics of which they clearly understood:

Personally I don’t think the author is a supporter of eye-for-an-eye justice so much as a shoddy writer who can’t be bothered to keep track of a single measly theme. From the muddled plot to the bland tone, this is a really lousy book, but the absolute moral ambiguity has to be the worst.

Yes, everyone gets to have an opinion and hold a personal preference. But when compiling a recommended reading list of critically important books, surely the opinion of one reader who happens to dislike a particular novel should be outweighed by the views of multiple other people whose opinions Bitch Media must trust to recommend titles to them in the first place? Here’s a thought to keep in mind: this a list of books recommended for your consideration; it’s not compulsory to read and/or like everything on the list.

Bitch Media’s statement that Tender Morsels “validates characters who use rape as vengeance” by “failing to critique or discuss” the act seems to be missing the whole point of reader/text interaction. The scene in question is a little under four pages in length. The assaults committed against the five men are neither graphically nor explicitly described in physical terms, but much is made of the glee the rapists have in carrying out their vengeance by proxy — and it is most definitely vengeance they are about, rather than sexual satisfaction. They make jokes and congratulate each other on the suffering and humiliation they cause. This is “rape=power” writ large and unambiguously. And a strange thing happens when you read it.

While the base temptation is certainly there at the beginning to view the forthcoming events with a kind of schadenfreude, a morbid expectation that these men will be getting no more than what they deserve, and possibly less, this rapidly dissipates as the scene unfolds. Because the casual, unthinking delight with which the rapists commit their acts really is indecent. By the end, you are left feeling a little sullied for having read it — and somewhat complicit for having, however briefly, accepted the invitation to anticipate a measure of satisfaction in what was about to occur. There is certainly no victory to be had in this kind of vengeance and therefore, I would argue, absolutely no validation of it within the text. Liga, on whose behalf vengeance was enacted, finds no happy ending in its aftermath. There is no need for Lanagan to sit you down and provide an explicit critique of the preceding events — I’m not even sure how such a discussion could have been presented within the pages of Tender Morsels as a novel.

Perhaps the pages of a novel aren’t really the place for it. Discussions involving rape and the politics of sexual power, and whether vengeance can ever really equate to justice, are best teased out in other forums — including the comments section on a recommended reading list. But this does not mean that the complex and difficult books that inspire such discussions should be excluded from such lists in the first place, simply on the grounds that they offer no explicit and clearly flagged  internal critique of the subject matter they present. Let’s give some credit to readers, please.

We don’t all need our hands held, even when walking deep in the Black Forest.

ETA: It’s extremely heartening to see the comments that have flooded in over at the Bitch Media site since this became a lively conversation over on Twitter this morning (#bitchplease #speakloudly). Lots of very interesting, very intelligent and extremely cogent debate about books and feminism. It’s great. It’s thought-provoking. It’s taking up too much of my time today! But I do hope it’s seen for what it is by Bitch Media and other potential “tastemakers” — the issue is not that a particular book was or wasn’t included on a Recommended Reading List, but that a book was removed from such a list because it wasn’t deemed to reflect the “right” kind of feminism. It would be a great shame if potentially controversial books were omitted from such lists in the future for fear of provoking similar reactions.