But For the Grace of Tuche: Why Writers Should Avoid the Temptations of Caricature

An earth like planet set against the deep of space with two yellow suns glowing in the backdrop.

It is an indispensible commonplace of feminist criticism to say that prejudicial archetypes are not only socially harmful but make for bad storytelling. We are not just saying that to be diplomatic, however. It reflects a truism of narrative art and characterisation themselves: the easy catharsis of cardboard-cutouts is alluring but a dead end in terms of artistic staying power. Making a character a lazy stereotype may plug a gap in your story, but ultimately leaves it hollow and unaffecting. To use such stereotypes ensures art that merely goes through the motions without actually taking us anywhere. Original characterisation, and its delightful conveyance of the player to another world, have never been a monopoly of so-called “high art.” After all, the best popular art can manifest that quality as well: to be memorable precisely through avoiding the paint-by-numbers of stereotypical characters. The Mass Effect series does this spectacularly well. But I think a good example that has … [Read more...]

The Chapel Perilous: On the Quiet Narratives in the Shadows

A classic, surrealist painting of a castle in a spiral configuration converging on the centre, its channels in between populated by figures.

Michelle Goldberg’s feature in The Nation magazine about “Feminism’s toxic Twitter wars” landed in the social justice community like an incendiary cluster bomb and its merciless conflagration is still raging online. The article, framed around discourse about race among feminists and implicit villainisation of Mikki Kendall (of #solidarityisforwhitewomen fame), enraged many who saw its misrepresentation of complex discussions skew towards condemning forthright voices of colour and protesting the innocence of the most privileged, white feminist leaders. As someone who was interviewed in the piece, I feel a certain sense of responsibility for this and an obligation to speak out about the impact of something I had contributed to. If I had known that this was the article Ms. Goldberg would write, I would have advised her to write or frame it differently at the very least, or even hand it off to a writer from the communities she was describing who could better handle the fjord-like shoals … [Read more...]

Beyond Niceness: Further Thoughts on Rage

An androgynous woman striding confidently down a green hallway wearing a shirt that says "Hack the Galaxy", the air around her alive with holographic screens, a guard behind her laying incapacitated from ongoing laser fire, approaching a door where screens warn her she is unauthorised.

The response to my previous article has been overwhelming and humbling; indeed, the various social media responses left me with vertigo as I looked down mile-long threads. To everyone who shared the piece, who added their experiences to its abstractions, who disagreed thoughtfully and respectfully, who vowed to speak up more often, I thank you. There’s always more to be said, of course, and I wanted to take this opportunity to clarify my views and what I am advocating. A noteworthy critique marshalled against my article and the others like it was that we are advocating “niceness” in lieu of robust advocacy. I cannot speak for my friends and colleagues, naturally, but in speaking for my own intentions, nothing could be further from the truth. There can be no doubt that our political discourse-- at all levels-- suffers from a rapidly oxidising corrosion; in response many “civility” initiatives have appeared, constellating around what one might fairly call “a cult of nice.” In their … [Read more...]

Words, Words, Words: On Toxicity and Abuse in Online Activism

An image of a dark haired and light skinned woman, eyes closed with two fingers pressed to her temple as she is surrounded by a number of holographic images.

To all new readers: I've written a follow up to this article. Not long ago my partner and I were seated in her car discussing the arbitrary nature of certain holidays and I opined, perhaps halfheartedly, that New Year’s was a worthwhile holiday simply for it being a useful vantage point for reflection, however arbitrary. It provides an overlook whence one can see a year of one’s life and world. A recent tranche of writing by several prominent members of the trans and queer feminist gaming community has renewed my faith in that idea-- with the overleaf of the year we suddenly find a great deal of penetrating insight into activist discourse and the risks incurred by our silence about certain excesses that have come to define us too often. The wages of rage in our communities, and the often aimless, unchecked anger striking both within and without have created a climate of toxicity and fear that not only undermine our highest ideals, but also corrode the comforts of community for the … [Read more...]

Do It In the Name of Heaven

A bishop's mitre, white with elegant golden trim along its base and up its centre, with two tails aback.

I am not a cynic on Pope Francis; though he's clearly very well managed in terms of PR, I do believe there is a meaningful difference between this pope and his predecessor which has the potential to, perhaps, bear some fruit down the road."Potential" is the operative word there, however. The Advocate's bestowal of its "Person of the Year accolade on the pontiff is unconscionable in light of the fact that Pope Francis' record remains resolutely anti-LGBT; his particular gentle approach is a welcome change in tone, but in practise it merely de-italicises the Church's standing antipathy to LGBT people. To simply say "don't judge the queers" is redolent of the "hate the sin, love the sinner" pseudo-compassion that drives a particular strain of prejudice among the spiritually inclined. Even just considering the narrow band of issues that animate The Advocate's editors, Francis has not been terribly encouraging-- his spirited opposition to Argentina's tranche of progressive LGBT and … [Read more...]

Crowds Are Calling Your Name

A young feminine person with light skin, a tattoo of a skull on her right shoulder, long pink hair and glasses, wearing gloves, a collar, and a corset, looking at a glowing tablet.

"As soon as men decide that all means are permitted to fight an evil, then their good becomes indistinguishable from the evil that they set out to destroy." --Christopher Dawson The cyber conflagration that began with Bachelor producer Elan Gale’s live tweeting of his “epic” takedown of fellow airline passenger “Diane” has now metastasised into that most schismatic of internet events: the hand-wringing-cum-bacchanal with outposts in Salon, BuzzFeed, Huffington Post, and beyond, either celebrating or decrying the episode. It is easy to roll one’s eyes at this—whether “this” is Gale’s own immaturity masquerading as street justice (aisle justice?), or the proliferation of articles on the subject (my own included). But I would not be so quick to dismiss this incident as insignificant piffle, or a joke that got a little out of hand. Nor does it really matter if Diane didn’t exist, as some have suggested. Elan’s behaviour itself, even, matters less than the true acme of our problem: … [Read more...]

The Politics of Small Things

A mockup of the cover of Richard Dawkins' autobiography, its title and subtitle edited to read "An Appetite for Honey: The Making of White Male Sadness" and the black and white photo of Mr. Dawkins edited to show him scrutinising a small jar of honey.

There is a familiar cadence to the bursts of Twitter mobbing that have become the definitional paroxysms of cyber-politics these days. Someone in a position of privilege (often unchecked) says something mildly foolish, they are called out on it, and then the privileged individual’s response rises to the level of something genuinely concerning and worth talking about. It is as if some activists excel at chipping away at the wafer-thin façade of public personas to reveal the monsters beneath. While I sometimes find the methods dubious, it is often as not a public service for such unmasking to take place. We should be made aware of the latent prejudices or hidden failings of many in our commentariat and we’re the better for it. So what did we learn from the now hilariously infamous Honeygate, the latest Richard Dawkins micro-scandal to rock social media and set virtual tongues awag? Someone close to me described the reaction to the initial Dawkins honey tweet as “tilting at windmills,” … [Read more...]

Enough

My approach to Cathy Brennan has long mirrored my approach to Ann Coulter; I generally refuse to dignify their deliberate attempts to cruelly incite. Rising to meet their hate, which is deliberately designed to provoke outrage, feels like a vindication of their strategy; what they desire most is attention, and giving it to them hardly feels like a victory for those on the side of the angels. However, after seeing a relatively sympathetic article about Brennan in the online magazine Bustle-- which apparently misgenders a trans woman and which some of my friends have fairly derided as a “puff piece”-- I felt there are some matters which merit clarification. During the interview she clearly set aside the instruments of her usual rhetoric and put on her most reasonable mien. Unsurprisingly, nothing she says justifies her behaviour, and much of what she does say is premised on assumptions that have no basis in our shared reality as women. It is that latter point that Brennan struggles … [Read more...]

Amber Scott’s Sword of Burning Gold: Inclusion in an Incursion

An image showing the cover of The Worldwound Incursion. A green Orcish woman with short black hair, wearing resplendent gold armour and bearing a sword and shield dominates the cover, while in the background a white dragon fights a red demon in a dramatic battle.

This article is crossposted from my latest feature for the Border House; that version can be seen here. What is staggering about much that passes under the banner of “fantasy” is how decidedly narrow its escapist vision tends to be. In both fantasy and sci-fi, far from transcending the fetters of real world limitations, we see our own world with its myriad failings reinscribed in uncritical verbatim form with only a smattering of chrome, Medieval grit, or magic to poorly disguise the copy. Dungeons & Dragons, long the towering mainstay of fantasy roleplay whose name is synonymous with its genre,  has at times been either a magnificent carnival of fantasy or a pitiless mire of the same tired clichés about gender, race, and sexuality that bedevil so much of nerd culture. This schismatic approach to its material is, I believe, a psychic scar left by the culture wars of the 1980s when D&D was accused of various and sundry evils; all ranging from reefer madness with dice to … [Read more...]

Reproductive Justice and the Invisible Sisterhood

sisterhoodispowerful

I delivered this speech at the opening plenary of the 2013 State University of New York-- New Paltz Women's Studies Conference. I present it here in its original written form without additional comment. (Well, one additional comment: If you wish to follow along with audio and hear the voice of Nuclear Unicorn, click here. My profound thanks to Eli Mann for the recording.) *** Patriarchy does not begin in our bodies. Contrary to those theories, feminist and otherwise, that seek an “origin myth” for patriarchy that germinates somewhere in the uterus, patriarchy has no starting point in reproductive organs of any kind—there is nothing in our marrow as women, our DNA, that sets us up as ontological victims of men whose bodies, whose bits, predispose them to oppression. In the words of legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon: “It is one thing to identify woman’s biology as part of the terrain on which a struggle for dominance is acted out; it is another to identify woman’s biology … [Read more...]

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