Change the World

How to Not Be a Bullying Mob: Version 1.0

I've been very concerned the last few years with how easily we are rallied into howling mobs baying for blood on social media. There's a certain joy to being a part of it, the feeling of being just and righteous and striking a blow for good. It's a very human, natural behavior, and it cuts across all lines of belief and political stances. But it also does a lot of damage, especially because sometimes there's no true villain involved -- just regular, flawed people, and mobs that pit them against one another.

It's one of the most crucial tasks of our new era to work out new social norms and etiquette to deal with the implications of social media. How to be kind to one another, even when we're angry, even when we disagree about things that are important. So I'm taking a stab at what that kind of etiquette should look like.

The guidelines I've used are aimed at allowing people to express their anger, but in ways that don't wind up targeting specific people for harassment. The more general guidelines as I see them are:

  • Don't escalate a disagreement by crossing privacy barriers or bringing in uninvolved parties.
  • In general, target institutions and non-human entities by naming them, but not people.
  • Be mindful of when an issue isn't yours, and you're just adding fuel to an inferno.

I obviously don't think I've solved the problem of people being outraged on the internet. (But man if I did, Nobel Prize Committee, you know where to find me!) This is more like a jumping-off-point. At the very least, we can collectively start thinking about what just and appropriate behavior is.

Social norms like "don't bite your friends" and "sneeze into your elbow" go a long way toward making civilization more bearable to live in for all of us. And the first step to adhering to social norms is figuring out exactly what those norms should be.

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Outrage Fatigue

There's a lot of terrible stuff going on right now -- police brutality unpunished. That torture report. GamerGate trickles on like a sewage leak, somebody poisoned a furries convention, and oh yeah other parts of the world are dealing with the manifold joys of ebola and ISIS.

Hate is everywhere. And anger is everywhere. It's impossible to escape the idea that the world is terrible and getting worse, even if it's not entirely true.

I've been having trouble with this, because I'm so tired of fighting. So tired of being angry. I want to focus on good, just to remind myself that good things still exist in the world. We landed on a comet, and we're going to Mars! It's finally raining in California. And... there's more, right? There has to be more, if only I could find it. I want to look away for a while.

But not everyone can look away. And so my conflict, born of my privileged position in life: it's a tremendous failure to be silent in the face of the suffering of others. But it's all too much, it's too overwhelming, and sometimes you have to save yourself because you can't help anyone else if you've been crushed by existential despair.

I don't know how to thread this needle. Spotlighting kindnesses, maybe, and perpetrating them. Fluffy kittens and delicious cookies and video games? But that's just looking away, isn't it? And so the worm bites its own tail and we start over again from the beginning. 

I suspect I'm not alone in this feeling. How are you holding up?

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Equal-Opportunity Objectification

As a long-time strident feminist and also a believer in the power of stories to shape the world, I'm inclined toward certain opinions. One of those has to do with sexual objectification of women in media, more or less summed up as, "Objectification is bad, mmkay?"

Let's do a quick recap of what objectification is, and why exactly it's bad, though. If you're up on your feminist theory and can't be bothered to read it again, feel free to skip to the next subhead.

So here's the thing: women in films, games, TV, advertising, comics, and literature are very often super-duper sexy. They are sometimes super-duper sexy in a way that isn't in keeping with the role they're supposed to be playing in the story world. In imagery, they are placed in poses and framed in ways that emphasize sexiness above all, for the enjoyment of an imagined straight male viewer. And sometimes, that sex appeal is basically their only notable trait as a character -- they're not portrayed as real actual people so much as sex dolls who happen to talk or move around from time to time.

Think about women in an RPG with skimpy chainmail bikinis for armor. Megan Fox bending over an engine in Transformers. The loving ass shots of Miranda in Mass Effect 2. The fantasy cover of your choice, as demonstrated by Jim Hines. So many comics that I can't name just one. Hell, even ads for a hamburger chain.

Meanwhile men in media can be fat, thin, bald, graying, muscled, wrinkled. Women can be hot, or they can be gone. (This is, by the way, how you wind up with ludicrous situations where we're supposed to believe that an actress like Kate Winslet or Janeane Garofalo are actually ugly.)

Why is this a problem? Because what we see in media shapes how we behave and what we expect back in the real world. And showing women as being sexy above all ties into a cultural norm where a woman's consensus hotness and sexual availability are the most important things about her. A woman can be clever, funny, generous, hard-working, powerful... but none of that matters unless she can pass a basic minimum bar for attractiveness first. Don't believe me? Ask Hillary Clinton about her hair sometime.

This situation is not OK. Women are people. Women are not sexual objects that exist solely for the gratification of men (or to be fair, for the gratification of everyone who happens to enjoy seeing a particular flavor of sexy woman.) Women deserve to be -- NEED to be -- represented in media as doing all kinds of things that are not just swanning about pouty-lipped with their tits and ass mysteriously both stuck out for the titillation of an imagined male heterosexual viewer.

I could happily go the rest of my life without seeing another camera licking some nineteen-year-old actress's cleavage. Metaphorically speaking.

So yeah. Objectification. I've been thinking about that a lot lately. 

The Female Gaze

A funny thing's happened in Hollywood. There's this:

And this...

Oh and let's not forget this.

These, my friends, are examples of the female gaze, as it's called in film theory, where an actor is posed and framed in a sexualized manner for the gratification of an imagined female viewer. I have three observations about this.

One: It seems to be happening a whole lot more often lately.

Two: Scenes like this make a lot of guys really uncomfortable. Really, really uncomfortable. Not unlike the way that I feel really uncomfortable watching something like, say, this:

Three: You guys, I... I like this. I like seeing hot guys with their shirts off.

But objectification is bad, right? So surely objectification of men is bad, too? I mean... if it makes men uncomfortable, then arguing that this is OK makes me a hypocrite, right? Or have I been wrong this whole time?!

Well. It's... it's complicated. For one thing, despite the increasing volume of shirtless dudes flexing and/or smoldering vulnerably in front of the camera, it's important to note that most of those guys up there are the leading man. (...Team Jacob!) Hotness is an element of what's going on there, to be sure, but these characters are active. They make decisions, they have an internal life, and in general they're going about their business with an incidental helping of sexy on the side. Sexy is not the whole meal.

But Transformers isn't about Megan Fox. The James Bond films aren't about any of the Bond Girls (and note that there's no male equivalent of a Bond girl.) You play Halo as Master Chief, not as Cortana. The problem isn't with sexy women. The problem is when sexy = women, and that's the whole equation so far as female characters go. Let's see some more women who aren't sexy. Not even a little bit!

Now, Jamie Lee Curtis up there is the leading lady, too. But you'll notice that Ahnold kept his clothes on in that scene. That's another key difference -- sheer volume. it's a lot easier to find a sexualized woman in media than a sexualized man, it turns out. For every Old Spice Guy, there are a hundred, even a thousand Heidi Klums. And that just underlines that message that the role of women is to be hot, not to do important stuff.

Jeez, though! Why does this have to be so complicated and fraught when all we want is fun? Isn't there some way where everybody can just enjoy looking at the hot people of the genders they're attracted to and not get hassled about it?! 

Another Way: Look to Bollywood

Now, India is no shining beacon of gender equality. But I've been watching a lot of Hindi film over the last eighteen months or so, and I've noticed a startling and wonderful trend. Call it equal-opportunity objectification.

You guys, this is the closing credits of a sports film. About cricket. No, for real. Look at the camera licking the sweat off those sexy, sexy bodies. Look at them get splashed with sexy, sexy water. Look at them move! I think most people can find something to be pretty happy about in watching that, right? 

And this is a common thing in Bollywood, to the extent of my experience. Men and women both tend to be well-represented as sexual beings -- Mumbai has no qualms about portraying a dude as smokin' hot. (I'll let someone else write the thesis on whether this is the result of differing attitudes toward sex in India vs. the U.S.) I mean. Can you imagine this happening in a mainstream American film?

Yeah, me neither.

And women in general tend to be well-represented in Hindi film, so far as I've seen. You commonly see characters of a variety of ages and body types, not just the hot girls. (Plots often revolve around hot girls and boys, and their eventual marriage, but I'm admittedly mostly a fan of the Bollywood romantic comedy musical, so that goes with the territory. Forgive me.)

So look, when I think about the objectification of women, lately my perspective has slowly changed from "Hey! Stop showing us women's bodies all the time!" to something more like "Hey! Let's even things out around here so everyone gets a turn."

I get it. Looking at people you find visually attractive standing around and being hot for your benefit is fun. I can see why you'd want to keep that around. So I'm cool with women being objects... as long as men can be objects, too, right? And in the same degree. Give me my candy, too.

But here's the thing. Candy for the eye rots the same way candy for the teeth does. Objectification is still pretty bad in the sense that we shouldn't be setting "reduced to a passive object for desire" as a standard way of viewing other human beings. The way to solve sexism isn't to dehumanize everybody forever. Oh boy is it not.

But that's by far not the only way for superhot people to exist on the page and on the stage! The thing about those sexy, sexy people in Bollywood film is that all of them, men and women both, still have agency and inner lives. All of them are characters who dynamically move through the story and affect how events unfold. They are whole people, who have thoughts and opinions and not just secondary sexual characteristics. It's amazing. It's inspiring. It's a whole lot of fun to watch!

So my solution is this -- fine, let's have tons of scantily-clad, oiled-up, wind-tunneled, vaseline-lensed people in all kinds of media! Great! Fun! Men and women alike, and the more the merrier. But let's make sure that all of those sexy people, above all, remain human beings.

Because that's the whole point of feminism, right? Not to shut down sexytimes, not to kill all the funs, not to remove joy from the world. Just, everyone should be treated like a person. And as goes our media, so goeth our world.

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Thank You, Anonymous Internet Trolls

We've seen an unprecedented resurgence in feminism lo these past five years. I run in some overlapping circles that have historically been very unfriendly to women -- tech and startup culture, games and gamer culture, SF/F fandom. And the conversation in every one of them has reached a roaring and broad consensus in the last two years: the way we've been treating women up until now is really not OK, and it has to stop.

Kotaku, the popular games site once best known for breathlessly covering things Japanese schoolgirls might do with their underwear, now talks about sexism as a problem. There was a time when that would've been unthinkable. In SF/F, a movement begun by John Scalzi for every convention to adopt a meaningful harrassment policy has resulted in... well... a ton of new harrassment policies going into place. Women like Sheryl Sandberg and Melissa Mayer are taking on senior roles at tech companies -- and while venture capital has a long, loooonnng way to go, the lack of equal access to funding is now widely considered a problem for VC funds to aggressively address. Companies like Undercurrent are publicly trying to remove the quiet hand of sexism from their processes and culture.

It's happening in the realm of comics. It's happening in Hollywood. It's happening in thoughtful online communities like MetaFilter. You guys, a new age of feminism is upon us. We're making real and meaningful progress. 

I think it's because of the trolls.

Invisible Sexism

Once upon a time, sexism was thought to be a genteel frame of mind; even a protective one. Society wasn't trying to limit what women could do, or so the thinking went; the structures in place were to make sure women had lesser troubles, to offset their natural greater burdens in the realms of child-rearing and the home.

You and I know that's bullshit. All that not having to worry your pretty little head about things like money came with enormous problems. Women who couldn't leave an abusive marriage because they'd starve, for example. Women who were uncredited for their work in the realms of literature, engineering, science, math, politics. (This stuff still happens, by the way.)

Gradually we weeded out some of the more overt signs of sexism in economic spaces. We could get hired. After another generation, we mostly got rid of all that ass-pinching in the office. And while pay equity hasn't happened, it's at the very least become a serious gaffe to suggest a woman doesn't need to make as much money as a man because she doesn't need to support a family -- at least in polite company.

Progress. It hurt while it was happening and it took a lot of time, but there's been a real result. Women are now in the labor force in roughly equal numbers to men. And with that, a lot of people thought sexism was over.

But a fundamentally dismissive and derogatory attitude toward women persisted. In language, "like a girl" is a dead insult. It was a consensus opinion that women weren't good at or simply didn't do things like math, or computers, or video games. Evidence to the contrary was always marked as the rare outlier. And anything marked as the domain of women -- shopping, housekeeping, anything cute or pink or nurturing or romantic -- was widely considered to be fluffy and less important than all that SRS BZNS man stuff.

All the while, our culture continued to assume that the neutral state was always a heterosexual white man. Women in our entertainment were mostly love interests or sex objects... when they were there at all.

Representation in media matters -- both how much of it there is, and what it looks like. Don't take my word for it, there's a lot of research on the matter. The images we see in media shape how we think we should behave back in meatspace, and media was (is!) still flogging that old-fashioned idea that men are for doing things and women are for looking hot and swooning when appropriate. This has real and serious consequences for how women are treated. Not so much in business spaces -- we've legislated the hell out of that by now. But in all of the other domains of life; recreational spaces like Xbox Live, or sports, or dating. Even our own relationships with one another and how we share household chores, for example.

You can't legislate how people treat each other in social spaces, nor should you. This is a problem that requires a cultural fix, in the same way that it's easier to stamp out smoking, it turns out, by making it socially unacceptable, than by putting health warnings on the package. We really, really care what the other monkeys think.

But the media is busy telling us that the way things are is the way things should be -- and you can't blame any one piece of media, mind you, it's the cumulative effect of all of those drip-drip-drips of reinforcement about what role women should have in society. It's really super intensive hard to change a behavior when everything around you says that behavior is right.

The problem becomes effectively invisible. Why complain about the women in chain-mail bikinis when Conan isn't even wearing that much? Oh, come on, why are you whining about not enough women in movies? They aren't making films like Thelma and Louise for dudes, you know! Why, women have their own media, like Oprah's TV show and channel and magazine! See? There's stuff out there for women. Stop being so hysterical. You're too sensitive. This is ridiculous.  

It's easy for a man -- even a well-meaning, intelligent, fantastic man -- to roll their eyes at the argument for equal and diverse representation, when that doesn't intuitively matter the way that equal pay does. When they literally can't see the problem.

Fat, Ugly or Slutty

Which brings us to the dawn of our new age of feminism. Women have known all along that when we're alone in a public space, without the covering presence of a man, bad things can happen. Catcalls and wolf whistles, yeah, and a sort of baseline dismissiveness that you maybe don't even notice because that's just the way it's always been.

The time I asked my 8th-grade English teacher if I could be placed in a more advanced class and he told me I had pretty eyes. The MUD I stopped playing because the wizards found out I was a real girl and wouldn't stop giving me stuff. The guys on IRC trying to get me to sex them up because I had a femme-looking name. The skeevy dude who sat next to me on the subway trying to persuade me, for the entirety of my twenty-minute ride, to leave my fiancĂ© and go out with him. The one who helpfully told me my ass was too fat while driving past me at an ATM, and the one who told me to "get a tan, you fucking albino" for daring to have pale skin at the beach. The salesman at the car dealership who gave my husband the answers to the questions I'd just asked. Everyone at any of several conferences who just assumed I was a booth babe when I was there as technical staff, and wouldn't look me in the eye. The dude who insinuated that I must be having an affair with a colleague and friend because we sat together at a conference. 

Reader, that's getting off easy.

I've literally never talked about most of this in a public venue because it's just, you know, what being a woman in the world is like. Who goes around talking about how angry they are that everything gets wet when it rains?

An invisible problem. And if you talked about it, well, it's easy to write off any one story as a bad experience. An outlier. Outside the norm. Hey, it happens, nobody's life is all sunshine and alicorns.

A funny thing happened, though. Women started talking about it on the internet anyway. Sharing experiences; describing what the world was like for them. The first notable example, for me, was Fat, Ugly or Slutty. This site takes a problem that every woman in gamer culture already knew about, named it as a problem and not just the weather, and proved it existed to men. Not just as an outlier. Not one bad seed, not a handful of immature tween boys. Mountains upon mountains of vitriol that most men had never even dreamed was out there.

There was the outrageous backlash against Anita Sarkeesian for simply wanting to talk about how women are represented in games. Or more recently, the one against Janelle Asselin for disapproving of a comic book cover. There's a nowhere-near-complete timeline of various appalling incidents in the Geek Feminism Wiki.

We're talking death and rape threats, here, too, not just gentlemanly disagreement. And this, I think, has been an epic and long-needed awakening for many, many men who don't want to be sexist but simply never saw the problem before, and for many, many women who never spoke up because they didn't realize that maybe we could make it stop.

It's easy to say nothing is such a big deal for men and women alike if it's just the one side saying "less cleavage please." But when the response is an avalanche of abuse -- and all the women are nodding their heads and saying yeah, that's about what you'd expect -- suddenly those trolls have thrown a bucket of paint on the previously undetectable situation. The well-meaning, intelligent majority can see the shape of what we're up against. And now everyone is starting to get on the same page about exactly what's going on and precisely how really, really not OK it all is.

It's easy to despair and think that the problem of misogyny is worse because we're seeing so much more about it now than we ever used to. But we're seeing more of it because we're talking about it. And we're talking about it because finally, finally, we have hard evidence of what it's like out there for women. And things are changing for the better.

So thank you, internet trolls. With every threat, every piece of casual abuse you put into writing, every one-off not-so-funny drive-by comment, you are minting new allies. You're proving that sexism is not, in fact, over. We have our necessary precondition for change -- anyone can see the problem, and consensus grows greater with every passing day that it's time to take care of it. Seriously, thank you. We could never have come this far without you.

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Why Diversity in Fantasy Matters

A good friend of mine showed me a work of fantasy in progress not long ago. There's a character in it who was introduced as a feminine man; maybe gay, maybe genderqueer or ambiguously gendered; but certainly someone with a nonconforming gender presentation. And a particular word was used, not just to describe this character, but to describe what kind of human being that character is in this world. For our purposes, let's say it's "Pansy."

In the course of this character introduction, the point of view character shows contempt for the Pansy. So of course I flagged it as problematic.

My friend was horrified at the thought. After all, my writer friend is not a homophobe, quite the contrary! Would never want to offend anybody at all! The character is quite cunning, and uses this contempt to his advantage later in the work, plays upon how society views him, and is very clever all around! It's just how that society is, that's all. And that point of view character is morally ambiguous, anyway -- so surely we can't take their opinions as gospel!

And it's true -- this friend is a fine and decent human being and would never intentionally set out to hurt someone. And when I set about trying to think about how to explain why I felt this particular character was problematic and how I would prefer to see this handled, I realized I have so much to say that it's a whole blog post of its own.

So here you go!

Throw the Book at the Wall

There are elements you can put into a story that are dead showstoppers for some readers. Killing animals. Child abuse. Rape. This is one of those showstoppers.

If I had purchased that book and came across that piece of text implying the existence of an inferior Pansy class of people in this society, I would quietly stop reading the book. I would never recommend it to a friend. I would never purchase a work by this author again. I might begin some angry Tweeting and blogging, if I were in a ranty frame of mind.

I wouldn't actually throw the book at the wall, but there are people who would. Because the book has started out the introduction of this topic in what appears to be a show of bad faith.

When a man on the street makes kissing sounds at me and tells me all about the vulgar thing he'd like to do to my ladyparts, I'm not going to move on to getting his phone number and going out to dinner to see if he'll prove to be a nice guy. Show's over. I don't need more information to reach my conclusion.

Likewise, if a book introduces its sole gay or genderqueer character framed as a figure worthy of disgust, I don't need more information to conclude that this isn't likely to be a friendly, affirming book in its implicit opinions about such folks. It doesn't matter if that idea is subverted later. The damage has already been done, and some share of your potential audience already stopped reading, and maybe have been hurt by their interaction with your work.

A Fantasy Society Is Of Your Own Making

Now let's address the idea that this is simply how the fantasy society feels about non-straight or non-gender-conforming characters. An immutable factor.

When I teach transmedia workshops, I often talk about load-bearing plot points. These carry the weight of the story and can't be changed without the whole thing collapsing on your head. Usually the things that matter most are character motivations and relationships. If Sonja needs to be in a bad mood going into a meeting so she says something undiplomatic, there are a lot of things that can do that. Spilled her coffee on her suit. Dented her fender on the mailbox. Found out the hot UPS guy is already dating someone else. Doesn't matter how Sonja got mad, only matters that she is.

Being able to separate the stuff that you need to keep the clockwork of the story running from the stuff that's just color is a very important skill for a writer to have. You need to know what creative decisions you're making, and sometimes you're making creative decisions without realizing you've made a conscious choice at all.

In this particular case, the important thing is that the society feels contempt or dismissiveness for this character. That's a load-bearing plot point. But there are lots of other things that could do that work just as well, and this just happens to be the one the writer chose on this occasion. It could just as easily have been bestiality or pedophilia. It could've been adherence to an unpalatable religious cult with foul-smelling practices. Coprophagy. Smoking or gambling. Addiction to an exotic drug. It doesn't have to be anything to do with gender or sexuality; that's a choice they've made.

 So look, if you're dead set on the gay or genderqueer people in your fantasy setting being vilified or seen as distasteful, it behooves you to examine why you made that precise creative choice. You are the god of that universe. You can change that society to suit yourself. And plausibility or historical accuracy just don't cut it -- certainly not all pre-industrial societies have had the same views on these topics.

You probably didn't make any choices because you're a bad person. Odds are that you, like my friend, are a fine and decent human being! But maybe you didn't realize you were making a creative decision at all, and that it could've gone another way. And once you know... you should stop and think about how else you could accomplish that same result. Dig deeper.

Homophobia, Racism, and Sexism, Oh My

And here's our icing. These same kinds of justifications are used to dismiss or excuse equally problematic treatments of women, people of color, people with disabilities, and more in fantasy and in other genres of fiction. "Historically correct." "I'm subverting the trope." "It's just how that society is structured." As if these things weren't entirely a construct of the mind of the writer to begin with.

And look, if you introduce your first female character to me with a show of breasts and giggling, I'm going to have a hard time turning the next page. If your dark-skinned characters are beast-like, illiterate savages, same-same. Don't ask me to sympathize with a rapist, and yes, Stephen Donaldson, I am looking at you.

This isn't just an exercise in political correctness for its own sake, either. This is a matter of not alienating potential readers, for one thing. Finding success as a writer isn't so very easy that it's a great idea to go around offending people who might otherwise be super into your work, you know?

But the responsibility here is much larger and heavier than it looks at first glance. Just a story, right? Just entertainment. No big.

Listen. Every story we tell becomes a part of our consensus culture. Another brick in the edifice of society. Stories are our way of telling one another how to be human, how to understand the world. We tell ourselves that crime doesn't pay, love conquers all, heroism can be found in anybody.

But we also use stories to reinforce some awful messages: men are inferior parents, brown people are terrorists, no doesn't always really mean no. We hear these messages again and again, and we start to believe them. In a sense, every story we tell is true. They become true, like it or not. 

Going a little out of your way to make your work reflect a more compassionate and varied world is definitely an act of self-interest. But this isn't just about sales and markets and alienating subsets of readers. Writing about a world where people of all stripes are visible, are represented, are richer and deeper than a grab bag of tired-out archetypes, is just plain the right and decent thing to do.

You're not just making a better story. You're making a better world.

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