Rooms of Our Own

I’ve found myself thinking quite a bit lately about writing communities — and particularly about those which are composed entirely or primarily of women (and, in many cases, transgender individuals and enbies).

As someone who was supposed to debut in 2017 and is now debuting in 2018, I belong to a few different groups of debut authors. None of them have any kind of gender requirement for entry, but all are primarily composed of women. In these groups, a joyous spirit of mutual admiration and celebration dominates. The gender split seems largely true, as well, for the writing community in the Twitter-verse. I don’t think it’s quite as pronounced there — these particular FB groups seem to run about 90-10, whereas the participants on hashtag games, I’d probably put more at 70-30 — but it’s still extant. And, on the whole, in the Twitter writing community, women seem more likely to favorite and RT each other, more likely to turn a single tweet into a discussion. I’d be incredibly interested to see a sort of connection map to visualize that: I suspect that the womenfolk would have more connections and more extensively interconnected networks than the men.

Recently, a new member joined one of the FB groups — a member who happened to be male. Without ever having contributed to group discussion or helping to promote the other members, he began posting several items a day to promote himself. There was an air of assumption — and an obliviousness to how the group operates. Certainly there was no sense of contribution, no indication that he would be lifting others up as he expected to be lifted. It was… jarring. Didn’t he know how we behave? What would make him think that behavior was okay? Didn’t he realize how rude, ham-handed, presumptuous that was?

The thing of it is, though, I’ve just gotten used to the delightful nature of these particular groups. Some other groups I belong to but rarely spend time in are much larger and have a much higher percentage of male participants. These are places where promotion is a self-driven free-for-all, not a cooperative game. There is no expectation of mutual exchange. They tend to be un- or lightly-moderated.

I don’t spend as much time in they because the conversations tend to be unnecessarily combative. Threads get started that can only be described as “shit-stirring”, and a lot of time they’re retreading the same tired topics. (The one that really makes me want to light my hair on fire is “Do you really have to be a reader to be writer?”, which rolls around every few weeks. The answer is yes, and it’s not even a question in the groups that are populated with more pros than amateurs). Blanket assertions get made. A lot of opinions get stated as inviolable fact. Condescension rains down. As a result, these groups aren’t a lot of fun to be in; I confess, I’m really only in them out of a desire to make my name as Seen as possible pre-launch.

Is it always the male members starting trouble in these groups? No. But 9 times out of 10, yeah.

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This is, of course, not to denigrate the guys I know who are lovely and supportive and generous. The smaller, cooperative FB groups have some excellent menfolk who have participated in conversations, organized promotions, and celebrated everyone’s successes. The Twitterverse has dudes who not only engage in conversations sensibly and respectfully, but who will step in when they see some other dude being a jerk and set their bros straight.

But then, they don’t need me to point that out. They know I’m not talking about them (don’t y’all?). Take the Sirens conference, for example. Last year I think there were all of three cis men there. Those guys were totally welcome, and the best part was, not a one of them abused that. They all understood that they place they were in was not for them. It was not designed with them in mind. Quite the opposite, in fact. They all understood that they were guests in a non-male-focused space, and they all behaved like polite guests ought to. They didn’t monopolize conversations. They didn’t mansplain. They listened. Sometimes they asked questions. But they never tried to assert themselves over others. And it was awesome. Towards the end of the con, several different women commented something to the effect of “Wow. I just realized I went four days without hearing the words ‘Well, actually’.” The relief was palpable.

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Anyway — This recent incident got me thinking: Why do these female-dominated groups have such a tendency towards compassionate discourse, willing cooperation, and enthusiastic cross-promotion?

The one possible answer of “Women are naturally more sociable/compassionate/cooperative” would take a lot of unpacking, positing theories of evolutionary psychology against the massive weight of cultural norms and societal conditioning. A worthy exploration, perhaps, for someone with a more scientific brain than my own.

But I also think there’s an aspect of: Female authors behave like this because we have to.

What I’m talking about, really, isn’t the behavior of any individual man as much as the gender disparity in these groups. Far fewer men seem to feel the need to congregate in such a tight-knit fashion, where mutual advocacy is either an explicit or unspoken component of the group. Many, many women do, because we have to. Our publishing survival depends on it.

Male authors are still more likely than female authors to get the heavy marketing arm behind them. They’re more likely to land reviews from major publications. Male-heavy genres (“literary” fiction, thrillers, academic nonfiction) are treated, on the whole, as “worthier” than female-heavy genres (romance, historical fiction, creative nonfiction, the bulk of YA). I’ve talked about these pervasive schisms before. In SFF, despite how many women are writing in it — talented women, writing innovative and visionary novels — it’s still largely perceived as a male genre. Male authors are still the ones pointed to as the giants, the gold standard. Men still get the bulk of the attention.

 

Women don’t have the advantages that men — particularly straight white men — benefit from. So we band together. We aggressively affirm each other. We give each other the lift that the industry doesn’t always provide. Helping each other becomes sort of like herd immunity — we all become more visible by connecting with each other, and the more visible we are, the less easily we can be dismissed.

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And we can feel safe with each other. We can vent. We can admit ignorance and ask questions. We can be self-deprecating! A vulnerability it’s straight-up dangerous to expose in most male-dominated writing groups. For this, if nothing else, I’m glad we can carve out these spaces for ourselves, decide which male colleagues get invited in, and decide who plays nice enough to stay.

I love these spaces. They’re cozy. But at the same time, part of me wishes they weren’t so necessary, and another part really hates the feeling of surfacing from them.

Wonder Woman, Historical Fiction, and Fantasy Fulfillment

A few days ago, I finally saw Wonder Woman, and it was as delightful as the internet had promised me it would be. I want more movies like this. I want sequels. I want prequels that just focus on the Amazons kicking ass thousands of years ago. I want spin-offs. And I want more heroines, all over the place. More movies focusing on women as central characters, unapologetically, from all kinds of stories and backgrounds and cultures and facets of the multiverse. I want princesses and generals and princesses who grow up to be generals.

I love that the major sentiment women have expressed after seeing this film has been: “Is this how guys feel all the time?” What a powerful thing it is, to come out of a movie feeling like you can take on the world.

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This dovetails with another thought I’ve been having lately: how much articles like “Not in this day and age: when will TV stop horrendously airbrushing history?” and “Women writers must stop falsely empowering female characters in history” annoy the living daylights out of me.

The basic premise of these articles (both of which appeared this summer) is that women couldn’t express feminist ideals before feminism existed — that writers should stop ascribing “modern” viewpoints to pre-modern female characters. Apparently not wanting to marry a guy who makes you miserable is a “laughably liberal” 21st-century ideal.

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Let’s set aside that such complaints register a pretty narrow and (yes, I’ll say it, despite the esteemed source quote of one of those articles) uninformed view of women in history. I could point to example after example of women throughout time and across continents who demanded some degree of agency and control over their own destinies — and, in fact, I’m doing so over on Patreon!

And let’s also set aside that these complaints about ahistoricity are always centered on women‘s supposed societal transgressions: whether it’s sexual agency, domestic and economic power, disobeying their husbands, whatever, the thinkpieces always want to complain about women not behaving as they expect. Funny, isn’t it?, how the complaints about historical realism are never about suspiciously literate stable boys, the unlikelihood of landless rogues being able to afford the upkeep of warhorses, or the preponderance of male tavernkeepers in an age when brewing was a primarily female occupation.

But even if we grant the articles’ premise that modern historical fiction creates anachronisms in the independence/sexual agency/snarkiness of its female characters — Why in the name of Juno shouldn’t it?

Women are finally beginning to get their own degree of fantasy fulfillment in sci-fi and fantasy. Yet in historical fiction — a genre that has long placed female characters front and center, showcasing their emotional journeys — writers are disparaged for doing the same. Though, I suppose, it’s also worth noting that historical fiction is a genre where male authors have long been taken “seriously” and female authors have been dismissed with the same derision as romance novelists.

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I resent the implication that my modern fiction — the books I read and the shows I watch for pleasure, for personal enjoyment — shouldn’t reflect the sorts of heroines that modern women want to see and enjoy. I resent the implication that any girl discovering history through a fictional lens (as most of us do) should be denied the sorts of role models she deserves.

I’m a historian. A persnickety one, sometimes. I twitch when New World fruits and vegetables get mentioned in Old World stories. I flinch when I see patterned fabrics in pre-industrial-manufacturing societies (looking at you, Hobbits). I’ve spent hours combing my own manuscripts for words that wouldn’t be conceptually available to my characters, even though they’re speaking another language (it is shockingly difficult to discuss energy-based magic without the language of the atomic age — another upcoming Patreon post).

But let me state quite flatly: if my historical fiction features an unusually high proportion of smart, sassy women, I have no objection whatsoever. I’ve no doubt that some will take umbrage at the Vitelliae and their patriarchy-challenging transgressions — and I simply could not care less.

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Give me fantasy fulfillment in every genre — just as men get and have always gotten.

Sisters, sisters…

So this has been on my mind for a while, but the recent #Ham4Austen meme, courtesy of @Drunk_Austen, has revived my desire to chatter about it.

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Kindly ignore my tragic misspelling of Bennett; I stand by this statement anyway.

As the deal announcement for my forthcoming novel stated, the backbone of the story belongs largely to three sisters: the Vitelliae — who are, in the creativity of Roman naming conventions, Aula Vitellia Prima (called Aula), Aula Vitellia Secunda (called Latona), and Aula Vitellia Prima (called Alhena). As I’ve discussed before, my inspiration for them came from a painting, but I think it’s slightly more than coincidence that much of the novel has been written and revised while I’ve had not just thematically-appropriate HBO’s Rome and the BBC classic I, Claudius running in the background (I am nearly incapable of working in silence), but also Downton Abbey, the 1995 Pride and Prejudice, and the Hamilton soundtrack. Their relationships, with each other and with those outside the family, drive the story.

I wasn’t consciously adopting a pattern as I wrote, but nearly everyone who’s read the book thus far has commented on how the Vitelliae make them think of the Bennetts, the Crawleys, or the Schuylers. Sarah once asked me if it were intentional, and our notes back and forth are littered with references to Hamilton (not only because of the sisters — but a lot because of them). But it got me thinking just what the similarities and dissimilarities are, because my girls don’t align neatly to any of the characters they are, as a group, compared to.13516359_520496718154978_8947441272109785272_n

Pert, vivacious Aula Prima has the most in common, strangely, with Lydia Bennett — if Lydia Bennett had Angelica Schuyler’s political sense. She loves a good time, has a fondness for military men, and flirts with abandon — but unlike Lydia, she strives to keep her family out of scandal. Knowledgeable and adept, she hides a cunning mind and clever wit behind lively green eyes, pink cheeks, and bouncing auburn curls. In “a world in which [her] only job is to marry rich,” she turns her political ambitions towards her father and brother.

Editor!Sarah and I have a joke of referring to Alhena as “And Peggy”, but there’s really much more to her than that. She probably has the most in common with Mary Bennett, and maybe a little with Edith, though I think she’s a bit softer than either. She’s a more minor character than Aula and Latona, but she has a lot of room to grow and develop, but at the onset, she’s bookish, and almost painfully shy outside of her own family (with, you’ll learn, good reason).

And then my dear Latona, middle sister and primary protagonist. She’d get along sparklingly a dinner party with Mary and Sybille Crawley, Angelica Schuyler, and both Elizas Bennett and Hamilton, but I don’t know how much she has in common with any of them. She’s a slightly different type. None of the Misses I mention start with as much tragedy in their backgrounds as Latona. She feels Angelica’s frustration and ambition, shares Mary Crawley’s sense of responsibility and Sybille’s social justice, would appreciate Eliza Bennett’s wit, Eliza Hamilton’s yearning for a peaceful and prosperous domestic life… but she also suffers a repression that’s personal, not just societal, and it’s colored her deeply.

So what has made early readers feel such resonance with these sisterly sets? Something in the structure itself, I suspect. A sister is different than a friend. Friends, you can choose (and the Vitelliae have those as well, as I consciously did not want to create a world where women had no social connection outside their families). But sisters, you’re given.

I am a woman with a sister, myself. Just the one, so a smaller set than the families I’ve discussed above, and we’re about six years apart. I would take a bullet for her, but our relationship hasn’t always been easy. That age gap is a bit weird — too far apart to be real allies as children, too close not to feel competitive. When I was in my most troubled years, she was still in grade school; when she was in hers, I was off at college. I often had an older sibling’s exasperation with being expected to be responsible and set a good example, not retaliate when provoked, and irritation with what she got away with that I hadn’t or couldn’t (parental leniency with younger siblings being a well-noted tradition — at least among oldest children!). I suspect that she often felt held to a high standard because of me, that I was something she was expected to live up to. We were both probably a little right and a little wrong. We get along much better as adults, but it’s because we’ve both learned to be more thoughtful, less antagonistic, more empathetic. We’ve learned about each other, not just what we like but how we work, rather than just assuming a genetic bond would either function or not. (To our mother’s total lack of surprise, we often find that our strife has been caused by our similarities, not our differences).

I hope that particular aspect of sororal relations comes across in my writing in a genuine way. It’s one of the things I really adore about the Crawley sisters. While the Bennetts certainly don’t see eye-to-eye, there’s never any real strife among them. Even when Lydia disgraces the family, she shrugs it off with almost no consequences, and everyone else sort of rolls their eyes, and life moves on. Everyone seems far more concerned about how Lydia’s actions reflect on them than about Lydia’s well-being. Lizzy never gives Lydia the dressing-down she had coming, nor do the other sisters air their grievances. ClawJQdUoAAz3lQSaintly Jane never shows impatience or irritation with her siblings. Mary never explodes with frustration at the mockery she endures. The closest we get to real sororal trouble are the sniping between Lydia and Mary, and then the jealousy that Kitty feels over Lydia’s popularity and invitation to go to Brighton — but those are only side notes, the background chatter of the novel. The disconnect between Lizzy and her younger siblings is more glanced at than explored. The reader is meant to dismiss them as silly and pointless (one of the things I like better about the 2005 movie is that you see more soulfulness out of Mary Bennett), and thus not to feel much sympathy for them.

On the other hand, Mary and Edith spend a lot of time at each others’ throats, snarking and subverting and outright sabotaging. But when their tempers aren’t up, they know that they do love each other — and that one day, they will be all each other has left. “Sisters have secrets,” Mary says, at the end of the series, and she’s right — and those secrets are rarely tidy and cute. Their relationship is far less sanitized than that of the Bennetts, and far more real. The Vitelliae aren’t quite so contentious, but they don’t always understand each other. Their personalities are different, and there’s quite an age gap between the elder two and the youngest. They’ll make decisions the others don’t agree with. They’ll be unintentionally hurtful. They’ll worry and scare each other. An older sister accustomed to being in charge may seem bossy. A much-sheltered youngest may struggle to have her maturity recognized. And a troubled middle daughter may feel misunderstood and like she has nowhere to turn, even among people who love her.

I don’t know everything that will happen to them. Their relationships have grown more complex in Book 1’s revisions, and I expect those discoveries will continue. I just know I’m looking forward to the journey — and I hope you are, too!

Writing Our Own Deliverance

Once again, a Tumblr post has made me think thoughts.

This piece on geek girls/growing up female/becoming a female creator came across my feed recently, and the bit that struck me the most was this:

so we made it up. we gave barbie a cape and our spotted dog the ability to control the weather. we wrote barely-legible fanfiction about vampires who were also terribly in love with us – because we were perfect in this world, unlike the mess of what really was – we crafted entire sub-stories about how the main characters in our favorite universes were secretly girls in disguise. we made 17-year-old characters who would cut the throats of anyone who hurt them. we drew pictures of women in full, angry armor. we wrote bad poems about the girls we loved and the ones we were jealous of.

It got me thinking… Wouldn’t it be wonderful, if all the women writers shared their first efforts? The heroines they created in youth, ludicrous and wonderful. The princess-superheroes, the werewolf-ninjas, the warrior goddesses. The shameless self-inserts who saved the day. The Mary Sues.

Mine started out as an Alderaanian refugee/X-Wing pilot/spy/Jedi knight who was, of course, fantastically beautiful, as tall as I never turned out to be, prodigiously talented and independent at 16 (which, when you’re 11, seems perfectly reasonably grown-up), and the epicenter of a totally kickass strike team/soap-opera-worthy drama. Everything I wanted to be, I poured into her. Every story I loved, I ended up filtering through her. Over the years she was also an actress, a courtesan, a sharpshooter, a bartender, a mother, a great lady. She was whatever I needed her to be at the time. Others of my wish-fulfillment heroines were lion-women with gorgeous snarls and pitiless claws. They were warrior queens, adored by their armies, who flew into berserker rages when faced with injustice. They were femme fatales with starlit eyes and no mercy for men who did wrong. That first one stuck with me, though, and she’s been reworked into a dozen heroines since.

As the world turned more violent towards me and my friends, as I learned just how ugly it can be towards women, particularly women who don’t match up to certain expectations, my heroines got more violent, too. Looking back, the theme of vengeance trails through so many of my stories. Something was taken from them — a kingdom, a child, their liberty, their choice — and they would fight through anything to get it back. They would land themselves in trouble, captive and deprived of agency, and they would slaughter their way back to freedom. Bruised and bloodied they might have been, but they were always survivors, always the last one standing. And like I’ve said before, it wasn’t as though any thing so truly heinous happened to me — but I was reacting to the permeating misogyny of culture I couldn’t escape.

And I know so many other women who did the same thing. This was how we claimed space for ourselves, even if it was only in our own hearts. Even if we only shared those stories with each other, in safe small groups, on email chains or whispered over laced fingers in the dead of night, because it didn’t take us long to figure out what response we’d get if we shared them more widely. But they were our characters, our stories. We owned them and we took power from them.

I shamelessly advocate fanfiction not just as excellent training for those who want to be writers, but as a worthy pasttime for anyone in need of an outlet — most particularly for young women. On the page, you can scream and rail and punch and claw and kick and do all the things you can’t do in life. On the page, you can have power that the world denies you. If you do become a writer, you get better at it. Your characters cease to be perfect and all-powerful; they develop flaws and weaknesses. They fit into their worlds, rather than bending existing worlds around them. But what can still live in there is the sense of the fight.

So that’s why I’d love to know, from all the female authors I adore, who their first heroines of shameless self-fulfillment were.

Bonus material: I’m a paper packrat who’s kept every writing notebook and sketchbook she ever had. Proof of concept right here:

Lucky is a Low Bar

This is a post I started writing a month ago, and then didn’t finish. This is the kind of post I’ve started writing a lot of times, and have never finished. I’m prompted to do so today by the bravery and strength of my cousin, who’s told her story of abuse in support of another woman who was abused by the same man.

Courtney says a lot of very true, very scary things — about how an abuser operates, how crazy and irrational they can make you feel, how hard it can be to admit what happened even to yourself, the challenges in coming forward, and how terribly, terribly common experiences like this are.

If you think you don’t know a woman who’s been raped, assaulted, or abused, you are just straight-up wrong. Most just don’t talk about it very openly. I don’t even have to look outside my own family to find multiple stories. That number goes exponential when I start counting friends. Which is just horrifying.

So.

A while back, I read Being a Girl: A Brief Personal History of Violence. This is far from the first such testimonial I’ve read, and I know it won’t be the last. Every one feels familiar. These experiences are universal. We don’t all experience them the same way, but we all know these stories. So this essay left me with the feeling that we should all — all girls, all women, all uterus-bearers who’ve faced these things — should write essays like this. Like maybe the sheer weight of a few million voices showing that these things happen to us will make some kind of a difference.

And then I thought that we all already are, all the time, and it has not yet mattered.

But the only way to fight is to keep talking. To keep telling the stories. To keep challenging the status quo that tells us to quiet down and just deal with it.

These are the facts of our lives. They shouldn’t be.


I am four years old the first time I can remember someone telling me I couldn’t possibly know something because I’m a girl. It’s an argument about dinosaurs. Girls don’t like dinosaurs, so girls can’t possibly know anything about dinosaurs. I’m a tiny ball of tow-headed fury, because I know I’m right about how many fingers a T-Rex had.

I’m five or six and curious about something on the news. A man’s been arrested for doing something behind a school in our county. I ask my dad — a prosecutor — about it. He has to find the words to tell his kindergartner about a sexual predator. For years, I will wonder what exactly he meant by “he made girls put their mouths on his penis”.

In the fourth grade, a boy teases me and pulls my hair for weeks. I’m told this is a sign he likes me. One day, he shoves me on the blacktop during a game of volleyball. I’ve finally had enough, so I shove him back. He grabs my pigtail and slings me to the ground. My knee, elbow, and arm are badly scraped up. My knee is also jarred so much that I will limp for two days, and enough skin comes off that when it scabs over, I won’t be able to fully bend my knee without cracking it all open again, but if the principal hadn’t happened to be passing by at the time, I don’t know if he would have been held accountable at all. My mother and father are furious. The boy’s mother makes him come to my house with flowers to apologize. My classmates somehow learn of this and say he’s my boyfriend now. I have to accept the apology but never want to speak to him again. To this day, if I get a dark enough tan, you can see a scar from this scrape on my knee.

The next summer, I’m walking my dog, alone, feeling very grown-up and responsible. A car passes me. A few minutes later, it circles around the median to pass by again, now with the windows down, and boys start shouting things I don’t even understand yet. They circle by to do it again, and while I don’t understand all of their words, I understand that they mean me harm. I try to ignore them, which just makes them yell louder. They’re driving by slower each time, pacing me until another car comes up behind them. The next time they are forced to go by, I tighten up the dog’s leash and bolt through the nearest backyard. I’m terrified of them and terrified someone will ask why I’m trespassing as I cut across neat lawns and bramble-filled easements to get home. My dad asks why I’m all scratched up and muddy. I don’t tell him about the boys. I’m worried he would find them and shoot them. The boys are barely old enough to drive. I am ten.

A confident and forthright child, I walk with my shoulders back and my chin up. When I am thirteen, my male friends start telling me this makes me look stuck up. Eventually the descriptor morphs into “bitchy”. I start looking at the ground when I walk instead. It will be over a decade before I realize I’m still walking like this and try to correct the behavior.

I’m fourteen when a boy shoots up Columbine High School. As it comes out that he may have done it because he felt bullied and ostracized, I feel confused. I’ve been bullied and ostracized for years now, but it’s never made me want to kill anyone, or think I had the right to.

As a senior in high school, a freshman friend of mine disappears at a dance, held in a hotel during a theatre convention. I don’t know where she’s gone, but a guy in his twenties was leering at her earlier. I find them in a stairwell. He’s got her pinned against the wall. He tells me to mind my own business and go away. I pull her away from him, push her out the door, and tell him that if he follows us a single step I’ll scream bloody murder. We go back to the dance.

I’m a sophomore in college and hanging out with other cast members after rehearsal. I’ve been playful and flirtatious with several of them over the course of rehearsals, but never with real intent. One guy, a senior very popular in the troupe, offers to hang with me as I’m waiting for the trolley. It’s cold, so we duck into the nearest building. After a few minutes of chatting, he tells me I’m gorgeous, grabs my wrist pulls me to him, and kisses me. He asks if I want to go back to his place. I’m flattered by the attention but not interested in him, and the kiss is sloppy and aggressive, so I beg off. In the meantime, I’ve missed the last trolley to my apartment, but choose to walk home rather than accept his offer of a ride. He doesn’t try anything again, and I don’t think anything of it. Months later, I learn that he spent the rest of the semester telling everyone what a slut and cocktease I am.

I’m in my early twenties when the man I think is the love of my life emotionally abuses me through relentless gaslighting. He never says it’s because I’m a woman, but everything in the language he uses is gendered. I’m too irrational. I’m too emotional. I’m too selfish. I’ve lost control. I can’t possibly understand. I should stop expecting so much of him. I should accept what he’s willing to give me. I’m acting too much like his crazy ex-wife. I don’t appreciate how much he loves me. When he hurts me, it’s my fault. When he loses control, it’s only because I made him. For two years, it doesn’t occur to me there’s anything wrong with the relationship. For two years after it ends, I’m still not ready to call it abuse. How could a strong, smart girl let that happen to her? How could she not know?

Twice at parties, I put all five-foot-three of myself, trembling with rage, between a woman and the man who wants to hit her. Both men look startled that I have the nerve to stand up to them. I know, someday, I will probably get hurt doing this. I know I can’t stop.

I’m twenty-six and an ex-boyfriend with whom I am on with friendly terms starts getting handsy whenever we hang out together. I have no interest in renewing the relationship, and tell him so. He persists. After one group dinner when he wouldn’t stop stroking my leg beneath the table, even when I tell him three times to stop, when he tries to take me by the waist in the parking lot on our way out, I snap and scream at him. He is so offended by my outburst that we never speak again. He swears up and down to our mutual friends that he never sexually harassed me, whatever I have to say about it.

I’m twenty-nine and becoming inured to gross comments during the interactive theatre work that I do, but still, the guy who tells me, “You make my dick hard. I bet you like that. I bet you wanna tell everybody about it” manages to astonish me.

I’m thirty years old, my heart bleeding for the women I know and love who’ve suffered, and thinking that I’m lucky. I’ve only been physically assaulted infrequently. I’m not still with my abuser. I haven’t been raped. I’m not dead.

Two (Wonderfully Feminist) TV Recommendations

This past week, I’ve been taking a brief break from writing as a sort of brain-cleanse, now that the manuscript is off with Connor and my betas. As such, I’ve been letting television occupy my attention, and I wanted to pass some recommendations on to y’all:

Bomb_Girls_S2First up is one I actually watched a couple of years ago: Bomb Girls. This is a Canadian show about women working in a bomb factory during World War II — the real riveters. They come from a wide variety of backgrounds — typical middle-class, working-class from the Canadian prairie, and one blue-blooded girl through whom we get the “fish out of water” perspective. It’s a tight-knit group — protective but competitive, exploring the challenges and freedoms of having their own incomes and their own lives.

The second I just started this week and have been binging every chance I get: Call the Midwife. It’s set in the insular and impoverished neighborhood of Poplar in the London East End in the late 1950s and follows the stories of the nuns and nurses of Nonnatus House. It has a feeling sort of like a post-war ER: few patients appear in more than one episode, and each one has its own little mini-arc rather than the larger, season-wide arcs that are in Bomb Girls. The midwives don’t just deliver babies; they provide almost all the medical care in the neighborhood, including prenatal and geriatric, and they also often serve as de facto social workers and therapists. As I gather, it’s based on a book of true stories in an area where, before birth control pills were available, the neighborhood saw 80 to 100 births a month (and less than a dozen a month afterwards).

Despite the differences in location and era, these shows seem to be in conversation with each other in a lot of ways. Both are primarily concerned with the lives of working women. The desires that matter are theirs. The pride and dignity that matter are theirs. We see family life and working life through their eyes. I don’t think I can overstate how important that is. Women are often so overlooked in history, as are their contributions in both the public and private spheres. In one episode of Call the Midwife, a character outright talks about how much women’s health matters. It doesn’t sound anachronistically feminist — it’s simply the natural result of a show focused on female characters who are, themselves, primarily concerned with women’s lives. There are male characters, of course — but they’re all in support roles. The husbands and boyfriends of the main characters are all portrayed as recognizing the amazing qualities of their wives and girlfriends, and the ones who don’t get it are shucked off unceremoniously.

Call the Midwife … 'We don't go out on bikes.'They also both tackle a lot of tough issues — including many that are still relevant, generations later. Abortion, access to contraception, PTSD, workplace harassment, equal pay, mixed-race relationships, abusive relationships, physical and mental disabilities, and so forth. And they all get handled with compassion and grace (which isn’t to say that all of the characters always do — but the storytelling does). Bomb Girls does better on the racial diversity front on the whole, with a major recurring theme surrounding an interracial relationship. Call the Midwife doesn’t have a diverse main cast, but has a few episodes that deal with racial tension of the late-50s. More of its focus is on deprivation and socio-economic divides. For all that Call the Midwife takes place in an Anglican convent, too, it’s remarkably free of slut-shaming narratives. Women who get pregnant out of wedlock are pitied, not in a condescending way, but because it’s hard enough to raise and provide for children with help — doing it alone in those conditions is nigh-impossible. Neither the nuns nor the nurses chide their charges for how they got “in the family way”, and more than once, they physically put themselves between pregnant women and aggressive or abusive men. They stand up for the girls and women entrusted to their care — and they encourage them to look out for themselves and for each other.

Both shows are also unflinching when it comes to the physical realities of their depicted careers: Bomb Girls involves several injuries and mutilations at the factory, and Call the Midwife doesn’t shy from showing the gore and fluids attendant upon childbirth. Bomb Girls has a darker tone overall than Call the Midwife, which is almost relentlessly optimistic. It takes some getting used to, as someone who’s grown up steeped in the “dark and gritty” era of storytelling — but it’s nice, actually. Bomb Girls makes no promises that all will turn out well for the people it makes you care about, but in Call the Midwife,  you’re almost always left with a good sense of hope. People tend to end their stories a little bit better than they started. Even when tragedy strikes, there’s always an uplifting message attending it. Not quite as realistic, perhaps, but I’m actually okay with that. I prefer my fiction optimistic.

So: If you’re interested in television that fights against some of the most common gender-related complaints about the medium, check out these shows. The women in both are all fully-realized characters with their own identities, all strong in their own ways, all vulnerable in their own ways — like, y’know, people. And it’s just delightful.

What Happened To Jennifer Lawrence Was Sexual Assault

I have a lot of thoughts and feelings on this topic, and this post hits them all with eloquence.

Early Exposure to SF/F

I read a comment on a Fantasy Faction article earlier today that made me sad. In an article about how women are systematically under-represented and under-marketed in the SF/F genres, some dudebro felt the need to comment asking, and I quote, “Honestly, who really cares if there aren’t as many female authors as male authors…?” Apart from the obvious answer — the person who wrote the article, the many female authors, their fans, and anyone else with two brain cells to rub together — he then somehow managed to top his own ignorant, entitled self by explicating that fantasy is male dominated because things like adventure, exploration, self-realization, and wanting to protect and provide for a family are experiences that are particular to the male gender.

Yeah.

This attitude is both depressing and offensive. It’s almost bewildering to me that people can still actually think that in 2014 — but, then again, it’s not, because I’m all too familiar with just how little so many people think of women. Being politically active will dispel you of any illusions to the contrary real quick, as will just, y’know, being a woman in public.

But it still baffles me that this attitude can be sustained in the world we live in now. The blinkers that someone has to put on not to see women for what they are must just be astonishingly large. To so wholly fail to understand that half of the species has hopes and dreams and desires just like your half… I understand that many men (and some women) can do this. I just don’t comprehend how they manage it.

And it got me thinking about my very first experience with the fantasy genre and how that may have shaped my own outlook.

I'm readyMy earliest experience with fantasy, at least that I can remember, wasn’t Disney. It wasn’t the cherished book of fairy tales I had, whose illustrations are still what pop into my mind first when anyone mentions Rapunzel, the Snow Queen, or the Princess and the Pea. It wasn’t My Little Pony. It was The Last Unicorn. The film, not the book — but when I later discovered the book at age 12, I thought it was one of the most brilliant things that had ever happened to me. I know I wasn’t any older than 3 when I first saw the movie, though, and it had a profound impact on me. I wanted to watch it over and over again. I memorized all my favorite lines. I had my cousins playing “free the unicorns” with me in the crashing waves of the Outer Banks. Over the next few years, the games got more complex. I have vivid memories of, age 5 or so, essentially role-playing a sequel to the book in my grandmother’s backyard. Schmendrick had gotten kidnapped by an evil sorcerer, and we plucky band of young girls had to go save him. There was much climbing of trees and scraping of knees.

These memories are important to me for a lot of reasons. It one-thousand-percent discredits the notion that fantasy is a boys-only genre, that little girls don’t like adventuring, that women fundamentally lack those relationships. And it discredits the idea that little girls can only see themselves as damsels in distress. It never even occurred to me. Probably because the women in that story, my first exposure to the genre, were anything but helpless maidens waiting for a rescue. Molly and Amalthea smash that trope all over the place. It may have been written by a male author, but it’s definitely a female-centric story. Molly is a cantankerous mature woman, far from virginal and innocent, who up and decides that, yes, she is joining this adventure. Just shows up and says, “I’m ready.” She works hard, isn’t afraid of getting her hands dirty, and says what she thinks. For her, the reclamation of herself comes later in life than the stereotypical coming-of-age, but it’s no less important for that. (Indeed, as I close in on 30 myself, I think it may be even moreso). Amalthea is, as a unicorn, proud and standoffish, yet somewhat reluctant to embrace her destiny as the last of her kind. When she gets turned into a woman, she spends a while looking like the stereotypical damsel in distress, maybe even wanting to be — but it doesn’t fit. Her destiny — her birthright, which that commenter believes only male characters are endowed with — catches up with her. She has to stand up to evil. She has to drive the Red Bull into the sea and free her people. She has to avenge Prince Lir. No one, least of all the ladies themselves, suggests that their female bodies preclude them from these experiences.

Would my outlook have been much altered if this hadn’t been my first experience in the genre? I doubt it. I grew up with such supportive parents who were equally happy to buy me dolls or dinosaurs, to take me to dance classes or to teach me to rappel, that I developed an immunity to a lot of the gender-coding that affects kids. (Which is certainly not to say I never internalized any misogyny, just that it wasn’t of that particular girls’ toys/stories vs boys’ toys/stories type). But I’m still glad that The Last Unicorn was my first introduction to the genre. It meant I never had to doubt if there was a place for me in it.

Yes, All Women: Cultural Misogyny from a Writer’s Perspective

First off, if you are somehow on the internet and not yet aware of the #YesAllWomen phenomenon going on over on Twitter, then you need to check it out. If you’re a woman, you will probably feel some combination of depressed, heartened, proud, scared, and totally unsurprised by the stories being shared. If you’re a man, especially a man who wants to think of himself as a good guy, as a feminist ally, as someone trustworthy, then you need to go read, absorb, learn, and resist the temptation to put your two cents in.

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I have a lot of thoughts on this. A lot. It’s certainly no secret that I am an outspoken feminist, and this issue is one that cuts deep. It would at any time, but after the UCSB tragedy, after the girl who got stabbed to death when she wouldn’t go with a guy to prom, after the girl who got kicked out of her prom because her dress was considered impure by a bunch of gross fathers… it’s particularly timely.

I was ten years old the first time I feared for my safety because of sexual aggression from men. Boys, really — they probably weren’t much older than 16 or 17. But I was 10 years old, walking my dog, and they were following me in their car and shouting things I didn’t even understand yet. They circled back around again and again, until I, terrified, took a shortcut between several backyards to get home. I didn’t tell my father, because I was afraid he’d hunt them down with a gun.

It started when I was ten. It has not stopped.

I have friends who have been raped. I have friends who have narrowly escaped rape. I have friends who’ve been physically assaulted. I have been physically assaulted. I have been emotionally abused. I have friends who have been abused. I have friends who have been followed by men, on the street, in cars, in hallways, in hotels, in dorms, in museums, in libraries. I have friends who have had to resort to physical violence when men wouldn’t take the message. I don’t think I have a single female friend who doesn’t have a story about a time a man made her feel unsafe.

So I have a lot of feelings.

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I’m also a writer. So I think about this issue as it pertains to storytelling.

And just as an exercise in that, it’s enormously powerful. The stories being told on that hashtag are emotionally moving — some are so sad, some are enraging, some are empowering, but they’re all getting my heart rate up. And as depressing as the stories are, as hard as they can be to read — particularly when the stream just keeps throttling, when the tales of misery and fear just. keep. coming. — it also makes me proud, and happy in a perverse, backwards sort of way. Because women so often feel silenced. Women don’t always get the space and the attention to tell their stories — and there are plenty of people out there trying to take this one away, to shame and silence what’s happening. (A note: If you’re a man arguing against this hashtag, you are part of the problem. If you’re a woman decrying it and claiming to be “not like those others”, you have some internalized misogyny that needs examining).

But I’m also a writer of fiction. So I’m thinking about that as well.

Media perpetuates these problems, but it can fight them, too — if done right. Some media tries and fails. Some — a lot — doesn’t try at all. And some stories — generally those told about women, by women, for women — succeed, at least in some measure. We can fight through stories. We can tell our own, we can tell each other’s, we can tell imagined stories that illustrate the reality.

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I write fantasy and science fiction. When I write fantasy, it’s generally historical fantasy — but that means AUs, which means I could change any rules I want. And in futuristic sci-fi, you get to make it all up anyway. So could I write a world without misogyny? Could I write a world where women felt safe in public? Where sexual violence was not the first threat an opponent would think to make? Where it wasn’t something women just expected to have to guard against?

I don’t think I could. Because I wouldn’t believe it.

I have to believe what I write in order for the story to work. Not in a literal way, but in the “things need not have happened to be true” sort of way.

And while I can believe in the possibility of elemental magic, of starships and moving through dark matter, of alien races and alternate words, of the dominos effect in history that could create a whole new reality… the misogyny of the world that I live in  is so ingrained that I don’t know that my imagination stretches far enough to undo it. I can hope for it, but not really believe in it, and that would out in the writing.

And I doubt my readers — at least, my female readers — would be able to believe in it, either.

There’s only so much disbelief you can suspend.

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Why Do I Care? (On gender disparity and the Star Wars VII casting news)

The Star Wars VII casting news has caused a lot of disappointment and not a small bit of outrage on the internet today, largely related to its lack of diversity. And a lot of that is focused on the fact that of all the newly introduced cast members, exactly one is female. This stings. I’m not so much angry as just disheartened, because I was hoping for better. It’s hard to say I expected it. My awareness of the way this industry works is a little too acute for that. But I hoped.

Detention cellTo be fair, I suppose it’s possible that that one female (Daisy Ridley) will be the central figure, the Luke of this trilogy. I’m not overly optimistic about that, but it’s possible. Far more likely from the current buzz, however, is that that primary protagonist role is going to John Boyega. This post articulates a lot of what I’m feeling about the casting news itself. Does it mean this will automatically be a bad movie? No. But I think it means it’s not going to be as good a movie as it could’ve been.

I’m proud of how much outcry there’s been, from both men and women, about this. I’m glad my geek sisters are standing up and shouting together, and I’m glad so many of our geek brothers have our backs. I’m glad to be hearing stories of little girls who, like I did, want to play with lightsabers and get into blaster shoot-outs in defence of the galaxy, and of little boys who are learning that, yeah, female-led stories can be just as fun as the male-focused stories they’re used to.

But of course, this is the internet, with all its attendant troubles. So in addition to those displays of solidarity, there’s also been a lot of bro-culture nonsense slung all over the place. At worst, it’s… well, exactly what you’d expect. But even the more benign responses are insulting and aggravating — the men asking, “But why do you care?”

So, just in case anyone’s honestly asking that question, not just using it as a roundabout way to get we silly women to shut up, here’s why I care:

  • Because I have loved this series since I was 11. Despite its problems, I have continued to love it. I have an emotional investment.
  • Because this series was a lot of what shaped me as a writer. As I’ve discussed before, this was the impetus for choosing this career path, and I honed my skills in the Star Wars universe. It means a lot to me professionally as well as personally.
  • Because this series was a lot of how I identified — and was identified by others — as a geek. My formative years were tied up in it, and as a girl, that experience was different than it was for my male friends. I was even more of a freak than they were. I was fighting the “Fake Geek Girl” nonsense a generation before that was the name anyone put to it. I had to work harder to prove my devotion, had to earn my stripes, and I damn well did so. I proved a long time ago that I get to care about this.
  • Because representation matters. Girls have as much a right as boys to see themselves represented in the stories they love, and they deserve better than a single default character to choose from. Girls should get to decide if they want to be the princess, or the cocky smuggler, or the clever scientist, or the intrepid explorer, or the grave and noble leader, or the wise mentor, and they shouldn’t have to strip themselves of their femininity to do it. (It’s also well worth noting that an interest in science fiction can easily beget an interest in science — and we need more girls to grow up into women who work in that field).
  • Because it’s important to our world that boys learn to see girls as more than just one thing, too.
  • Because girls can have heroes’ journeys. I seriously saw someone on one site trying to argue that the main character had to be male because “that’s just the archetype.” As though women don’t struggle with issues of identity, conflicting priorities and responsibilities, and determining their destinies. As though girls can’t go on adventures, wrestle with the question of death, overthrow darkness, and come out on the other side bruised and battered but stronger and wiser, too. As though men have a monopoly on good stories.
  • Because Star Wars, thanks to its sheer size and force, does a lot to set the standard for the genre and as such, I feel, has a responsibility to the genre. The original trilogy did so much to innovate technologically. Now is the time to be innovative when it comes to storytelling.
  • Because Star Wars has never been great about gender representation in the past, yet I keep naively hoping for better. The original trilogy had The Chick. In fact, The Chick who would pretty much come to define The Chick in the genre. And don’t get me wrong, I love Leia and still sort of want to be her when I grow up. But she was what we got. Other women were relegated to a spare few lines in a single film of the trilogy (Aunt Beru, Mon Mothma) or were alien slave dancers (sorry, Oola). And things didn’t get a whole lot better in the prequels. We get Padme and we sort of get Shmi. Shmi gets blatantly (and brutally) fridged in order to provide Anakin a reason to go to the Dark Side, and Padme never lives up to her promise (despite Natalie Portman’s efforts to triumph over the script). Other than them, there are some background Jedi and counselors, sure, but no other figures even approaching what you’d call central. They do a lot better character-wise in the EU (Mara Jade! Bria Tharen! Jaina Solo! and so forth, including expanding some of those background figures from the prequels), but, as I noted a while back, the content creators? Still overwhelmingly male. So we still tend to see female figures through the male lens.
  • Because this is a missed opportunityStar Wars is one of the most popular franchises of all time, and now it’s backed by freaking Disney. They’re safe. They’re going to make piles of money on this no matter what. They could tell any story they wanted to. Not branching out beyond the familiar is an error in judgment.
  • Because I’m a woman trying to write in the SF/F genre. I know. Shocking. Yet we do exist! Lots of us! So to anyone saying, “Well if you want to see X represented, just write it yourself”– Trust me. We’re trying. It just ain’t that easy. SF/F is still a boys’ club overall. Much of the female-oriented success, at least by broader media standards, in the genre has been in YA — which is, not coincidentally, also dismissed by many of the Powers That Be as inferior to the adult, “serious” side of things.  Trying to tell a female-oriented story and actually have it heard, published, put out into the world — that’s hard. You’re at a disadvantage before you even begin. So many great stories by women get shunted to the side because they “don’t really fit the genre”. It’s well beyond time to change what those narrow boundaries of “in the genre” mean. Star Wars could be helping that, and instead they’re reinforcing the status quo.
  • And finally, if all that weren’t quite enough, I care because I am a human being with emotions, and those emotions have validity. Dismissing the outcry against this casting news as a tempest in a teapot is patriarchal gaslighting nonsense, and believe me, I’ve had enough of that for one lifetime.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go re-read The Paradise Snare in an attempt to make myself feel better.