Representation

Confessions of a Former Writer of Sexist Fiction

url

In the process of moving to a new state for a new job, I spent a whole mess of time packing up all my stuff into cardboard boxes. This led to the discovery of every writer’s waking nightmare: those short stories and novellas you wrote before you had any idea what “narrative structure” or “scene setting” meant. If you ever want to spend an afternoon alternating between sheer horror and vague retrospective enthusiasm, try reading those notebooks. It’s a trip.

Sometimes, when you take a nostalgic writer’s trip, you discover some things. I found two:

1. A sentence from a totally useless story that I immediately cut and pasted into my current manuscript, because it was perfect and I re-fell in love with it instantly, and

2. The following realization: “holy shit but I wrote a lot of misogynistic patriarchal sexist bullshit between the ages of 13 and 18.”

You want to know what kind of cultural tropes and baggage society gives us? Check out the way you thought about gender roles as a child. No filter, no sociological un-learning, just straight regurgitation of the dominant worldview.

Here are two of the most popular tropes I found myself using over the course of my youthful forays into fiction. The sad thing is, these are not exclusive to children. They’re everywhere: in movies, in TV, in mainstream fiction, in video games, everywhere. And the sooner we start breaking them down, the better shot we’ve got at stopping them.

1. Women as Plot Devices

Uncomfortable truth be told, it seems I’ve always been more comfortable working with male protagonists. I don’t know why this is. Well, I kind of do know why this is. Despite the steady diet of female empowerment my parents and I sought out, from Tamora Pierce (guys I don’t care how old you are go fucking read Tamora Pierce) to Little Women (#JoMarchForever), most media produced in America is phallocentric.

There’s a reason we invoke the Bechdel test as often as we do: because so many things fail it.

You know what the test is: the film must have two or more female characters, both of whom have names, and who have a conversation with one another about something other than a man. Should be a given, right?

Check out this list of which 2014 movies passed and failed the test. Then think about how many of those passing films were billed as “blockbusters” or “must-sees.” How many of them got heavy advertising? How many of them weren’t dismissed as genre films like “young adult” or “teen girl” or “chick flick”? I count maybe ten. And that list has 159 movies.

And this is fucking 2014.

No, this doesn’t make me feel any better about the number of variations I wrote on this story: charming yet disadvantaged male goes through dramatic adventures (piracy, vampirism, the Napoleonic Wars) only to discover that the only female in the story is the love of his life, and that he’ll do anything (kill the captain, commit suicide in a vampire/hunter street fight like West Side Story with fangs, feed the rival suitor to a hungry bear) to obtain her.

Easy Solution: Start telling women’s stories with the same authenticity as men’s.

Obviously, I’m not saying that we should throw out all male protagonists. (#notallmen.) But all I’m saying is that we have to make an effort to even the playing field. Women make up 50% of the world’s population. Asking for a few stories about women who aren’t only focused on marriage shouldn’t be so much to ask, but apparently is.

It’s also worth pointing out that bit parts like scene-setting servants, whores, crowd characters, or personality-less mothers don’t count. Female presence is not the same as female representation. As writers, we need to get as deeply into the heads of the women in our stories as we do the men. It’s especially disappointing to me as a woman that even I frequently did not do this. But it’s never too late to re-correct.

2. Objectifying and Sexually Skewed Adjectives

Guys. Guys. I can’t make you understand on an emotional level the number of times I referred to the female character in the aforementioned nonsense vampire novella’s “emerald-green eyes.” (I know, I know, I’m selling this vampire novella really hard.) I blame this partly on Harry Potter: flip through the series and see if you can find a color adjective unmodified by another adjective. But the sum-total character development I gave this girl was deciding she had “emerald-green eyes.”

Occasionally, “shockingly emerald-green eyes.” Though how this could possibly shock anyone after I’d already written it forty times is beyond me.

She wasn’t the only one to receive this treatment. I’ve read through at least nine stories written between 2004 and 2010 recently, and nowhere in any of them is there a female character of any plot importance who isn’t the most beautiful woman the narrator has ever seen. Statistically speaking, that’s not exactly likely. Worth noting that there are male protagonists, in my writing and elsewhere, who look all kinds of ways. Yeah, I skew toward a type (okay, yeah, I skew toward this type). But it’s not the only goddamned type.

There’s a reason that an unattractive female protagonist (and not a “you don’t know you’re beautiful” type, a genuinely unattractive female protagonist) still feels like a revolutionary idea.

Women don’t have to be “classically beautiful” to be important. Beauty isn’t the only trait that determines a character’s value to the story. If we don’t spend all our time describing the male protagonist’s jawbones or the way you can see the shape of his pelvis through his pants, we sure shouldn’t be constantly talking about a woman’s body more than about what she’s saying.

Easy Solution: Kill your adjectives with fire.

I’ve become super highly attuned to the work my adjectives are doing. Specifically the patriarchal work. Description is great, guys. I once spent an afternoon doing nothing but drinking iced coffee and writing descriptions of various rooms, just for practice.

But when description replaces your characters’ agency, you’re leaning too far in the “show, don’t tell” direction, and it’s high time for you to come back to us.

Also, please delete every time you describe the color of something with more than one word. Every. Damn. Time. There is nothing wrong with “green” or “blue.” Take it from me, your future self will thank you for it.

I feel a little weird outlining my shortcomings as a writer, especially when I haven’t been called out on it by anyone else. (This is because no one is every allowed to read that vampire epic. It should be clear by now why.)

But I really think it’s important to be honest about the way writing works. Feminism isn’t a banner you take up one day and then never do a sexist thing again. Writing isn’t a skill you pick up at Target and then deploy perfectly heretofore. Both are processes, and both require training and continual sensitivity.

Constant vigilance, even.

429866_370542086303463_2128664468_n

Five Lessons the Media Can Learn from Welcome to Night Vale

welcome-to-nightvale-podcast

Warning: there be spoilers ahead. If you haven’t listened to the podcast yet, you have been warned.

A friendly desert community where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep. Welcome… to Night Vale.

If an ambient snare / hi-hat / piano melody is playing in your head right now, then you’re already familiar with the podcast Welcome to Night Vale. If you’ve ever opened up a Tumblr dashboard, chances are good you’ve at least heard of the bi-monthly storytelling extravaganza by Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink that, over the past two-odd years, has taken over the iTunes podcast charts, Comic-Cons, and my life. And if none of these things are true, what are you even doing with your time. Go listen to this podcast.

As a feminist writer and fiction junkie, I look for two things in my media: quality storytelling, and a basic adherence to the principles of equality, social justice, and representation. Now, it’s not necessary that something holds these principles up 100% of the time for me to fall in love with it. You can love media and still criticize it at the same time. Guys. I watched every episode of four seasons of The Real Housewives of New Jersey. I know.

(Team Jacqueline. Anyway.)

But the beautiful thing about Night Vale is that it doesn’t ask me to compromise. Amid its gloriously self-referential, convoluted storylines that somehow intersect with the fulfilling eclectic fatality of a tweaked-out spider’s web (listeners: I’m torn between Nazar al-Mujaheed and Marcus Vanston’s coffee table as my favorite bits), Night Vale’s creators make efforts toward dismantling the kyriarchy on a bi-weekly basis. And guys, it is awesome.

I could make a list of hundreds of tips mainstream media could take from Night Vale Community Radio, but this is a blog post, not a manifesto. So, here are five awesome elements of the podcast that make my feminist heart sing.

1. LGBTQ Representation, Without the Drama

Night Vale’s central romance takes place between Cecil, the velvet-voiced radio host, and the perfectly imperfect Carlos, seemingly surnamed The Scientist. Now, that’s a step in and of itself, since gay relationships are often mined as campy comic relief (Will and Grace, though long off the air, comes immediately to mind) or angst-ridden existential crises and ultimate tragedy.

This isn’t to deny the weight and gravity LGBTQ folks face when coming out in our homophobic society. I’m not suggesting that discounting the serious struggles homophobia creates is the way to go.

But as a counterpoint: science fiction and storytelling are just that: fictionAnd Night Vale invents a world in which being gay is exactly as interesting as being straight, or being a five-headed dragon. (Okay, it’s a little less interesting than being a dragon.) Cecil and Carlos’ romance develops as a caring, nuanced, consensual, unbelievably adorable relationship between two adults for whom sexuality is just another aspect of their identity, not something that needs to be questioned or torn apart or defended to anyone.

My favorite example is what can, if you squint, be called Cecil’s coming-out. The character Old Woman Josie asks him why they don’t go bowling like they used to. Cecil replies,

“I don’t know. There has been a tiny underground army living under the bowling alley, and they’ve declared war on all of us. They injured my new boyfriend. Also, I have a new boyfriend. Listen, we should totally get the team back together and go to League Night again.”

That’s what I mean. There’s so much craziness going on in Night Vale that a radio host’s sexuality could seriously not be less of an issue. Looking at our own current events, there’s a lesson there for us to think about.

2. Saying No to Whitewashed Casting

I don’t know a single listener that doesn’t have a small crush on Carlos the Scientist, possibly because Cecil, our narrator, “fell in love instantly” the moment Carlos entered town. He fell in love with Carlos’ perfect eyes, his perfect teeth like a military cemetery, his perfect hair (especially his perfect hair). And Carlos, quite unequivocally, is hispanic. Take that, mainstream media’s tendency to whitewash sympathetic characters (cough cough Exodus: Gods and Kings).

As if this wasn’t already pretty awesome, there’s the casting of Carlos’ voice actor to take into account. To begin with, Carlos was voiced by co-creator Jeffrey Cranor. But following that, latino actor Dylan Marron was recast into the role. Why? In Cranor’s words,

“It sucks that there’s a white straight male (me), playing a gay man of color (Carlos).”

And Dylan Marron is fabulous. Let’s not forget that. And his hair, folks, actually is perfect.

3. WOC in Central, Awesome Roles

I talked about this recently: guys, fantasy and sci-fi requires you to invent a world from the ground up. If you’re putting dragons into it, what the hell is stopping you from making important, central, well-developed characters of color?

Oh. White privilege and social racism. That might be it.

Remember the controversy when Rue from The Hunger Games, despite being described as having “dark brown skin,” was cast as black? Proof that society has conditioned us to expect sympathetic characters to be white, regardless of what their physical descriptions read as.

Night Vale is a radio show, after all, so we rely on narration and our own imaginations, but Fink and Cranor make a deliberate point of specifying that certain characters cannot default to white. One of these, and by far a fan favorite, is the unbearably kick-ass Tamika Flynn.

Tamika Flynn is every English major’s spirit animal. Her weapons of choice are a slingshot and heavily notated copies of classic lit. She leads children from the summer reading program in a battle against an evil corporate bureaucracy. She’s a revolutionary mastermind who hides throwing stars in copies of Willa Cather. And have I mentioned she’s thirteen?

Have I also mentioned that she’s a woman of color, voiced by two voice actresses, Flor De Liz Perez and Symphony Sanders, who are also women of color?

Have I also mentioned that she’s amazing?

4. Women In Political Office and Positions of Power

All right, “positions of power” is a little vague, because Night Vale is run by a mysterious otherworldly force probably lurking in a canyon. But the fact remains that both mayors in the series, as well as one of the candidates during election season, are female. Just as with Cecil and Carlos’ relationship, no one in the series has any problem with this.

There’s no endless dwelling on Mayor Pamela Winchell’s choice of skirt or pantsuit. There’s no concern that she won’t be able to carry out her duties because her daughter had a baby and who wants a grandma for a mayor? Being female, as being of color or being gay or bi or gender-nonconforming or without a face, is simply a non-issue.

Another tip that our media could take from Pamela Winchell’s emergency press conferences. Report the issues, not the mayor’s cleavage.

5. Speaking Out Against Cultural Appropriation

If you’ve looked at an Urban Outfitters catalogue, been to or read about Coachella, or watched a Katy Perry music video recently, you’re pretty well aware with the concept of cultural appropriation: taking a phenomenon, belief, or cultural practice from a group of people to which you do not belong and taking it in a one-sided and non-mutual colonial-style transaction. For a really clear and valuable explanation of the difference between liking sushi and exploiting someone’s culture, I recommend this article from Everyday Feminism.

Night Vale is having none of this. We are introduced to the Apache Tracker, who is universally regarded as a “huge jerk” for walking around in a cartoonishly inaccurate Native American headdress and claiming to possess “Indian magicks.” It’s recognized by the whole town that he’s taken a symbol with great cultural importance and just tossed it on his head for the sake of insensitive, tone-deaf, and racist ass-hattery.

Another glorious allusion to this very issue came in an episode from just a few days ago (I was listening to it while going for a jog and fist-pumped a little bit on the sidewalk):

“[Pamela Winchell cracked her whip] like in that popular and heartwarming series of adventure movies about a wisecracking archaeologist who comically destroys countless important artifacts under the hilarious misapprehension that they belong in his museum rather than in the religious sites of the cultures that made them.”

And then on to a discussion of the dubious existence of angels. It takes artistry and writing skills to work political and social commentary into a show while still making it entertaining and making me laugh.

You know what it doesn’t take? “Indian Magicks.”

——

Night Vale listeners: what would you add to this list? Do you have any critiques or suggestions for areas of improvement in the podcast? I’d love to hear them if you do.

Stay tuned next for the sound of your own breathing, filtered through a lifetime of regret, indecision, and missed opportunities.

Good night, readers. Good night.

Stop The Beauty Madness and Take Back Ourselves

Image courtesy of Stop The Beauty Madness

Image courtesy of Stop The Beauty Madness

Think back to the last time you consumed some kind of media. Any kind, really: from binge-watching back episodes of Game of Thrones (cough cough this isn’t what I did today), flipping through the latest issue of Vogue, or shelling out the seven-to-fifteen dollars now somehow needed to get a seat at the movie theater. Chances are, in some form or another, beauty was front and center stage. But what do I mean when I say “beauty?”

That would be a good question. It should be a good question. But you already know the answer. Beauty has collapsed from a potentially infinite number of dimensions to just the one we all know. The one that dominates red carpets and awards shows, runways and magazines, reality shows but rarely, if ever, reality.  Why is beauty something that can only be expressed in the typical Hollywood fashion? Why must beauty be visual at all? Why is beauty dependent on physical appearance and sexual attraction?

You want to know a little secret? I do not get up in the morning with the express purpose of making myself sexually palatable to the proverbial stranger. This is not my goal in life. I’m never going to be blonde. I’m never going to be tall. My body does not look like a willowy, gazelle-like supermodel, and based on my lived experience it’s not going to do that. My legs don’t do “gazelle.” And why is this a problem?

Beauty does not have to be in the (socially constructed) eye of the beholder. It can be in the eye of the possessor. And more importantly, it doesn’t have to be the body of the possessor. Beauty can be in anything and everything. Why limit ourselves to a tiny subset of one tiny facet of what beauty can mean?

Why, when we say “beauty,” can’t we mean the sound of a friend’s voice that we haven’t heard for months? Why can’t we mean the rhythm and power of this poem by TS Eliot*? Why can’t we mean the gloriously dulcet, smoky tones of this man’s voice? Why can’t we mean a girl working a fulfilling job she loves, or a man holding his child in his arms? Why have we let beauty slip away from us? And will you join me in stopping the beauty madness?

Today (Monday, July 7) marks the launch of Stop The Beauty Madness, an online activism campaign and conversation jumpstarter around body image, sizeism, race, gender, sexuality, eating disorders, age, representation, and so much more. It aims to change the discourse around beauty, body, value, and self-worth, to help us understand that we are capable of being so much more than square pegs against social beauty standards’ tiny round holes. It features a set of advertising-style images to spark conversation, a blog by the wonderful activists (and founders!) Robin Rice and Lisa Meade, and a 10-week audio series featuring a spectacular panel of Featured Voices. Which I’m not just saying because I’m a part of it. Sonya Renee Taylor, Melissa A. Fabello, Kate Fridkis, Denise Jolly… Dudes. This lineup is sparkling with the diamonds of awesomeness.  I feel like the kid that always got picked last for kickball suddenly being drafted to the Los Angeles Dodgers. How’d this happen?

Want to find out more? Want to help shape this conversation, listen to more than two months’ worth of podcast recordings of the best and brightest in the body positive community? Just like clicking on links? Check it out. StopTheBeautyMadness.com. You won’t be sorry.

*Yes, this is a quietly insidious way of my trying to make sure everyone gets more TS Eliot in their lives. Don’t judge. The man is my spirit animal.

#MarginalizED – Bringing Diverse Representation to Eating Disorder Awareness

Fun fact (okay, it’s not a fun fact at all, it’s just a fact): eating disorders are not a “rich young white girl’s problem.” They are not a “first world problem.” They are a human problem. Not that you’d ever know that by looking at the media’s representation of EDs.

Imagine in your mind the typical story the media puts out there about eating disorder diagnoses, struggles, and recoveries. Close your eyes and think about it for a second. Did it look a little like this?

  • Young (certainly not over thirty, because my God), upper-middle-class straight cis white woman develops an eating disorder to cope with some traumatic event in her past. The ED is anorexia.
  • After an intervention from loving family members, the woman enters residential treatment.
  • Several months later, she emerges 98% recovered and ready to make a difference in the world.

Probably.

Now, I’m not saying that these stories don’t have value. They do. They are serious struggles that need to be addressed. I’m a young middle-class straight cis white woman recovering from anorexia, for crying out loud. Those stories happen.

But are they the only stories?

When’s the last time you remember hearing an ED memoir with the protagonist suffering from bulimia? How about binge eating disorder or OSFED (Other Specified Eating or Feeding Disorder, what the DSM used to call EDNOS)?

How many stories out there are told by women of color? Not enough, if the #EatingDisordersAreForWhiteWomen hashtag is anything to go by.

What about middle-aged or older women?

What about the 10% of men (at the absolute bare minimum) with some form of disordered eating?

What about LGBTQ folks?

What about people who choose not to pursue residential treatment? Are their stories “not bad enough” or “not serious enough” for mainstream acceptance? (Hint: the answer is NO.)

We’ve talked here before about the importance of representation. If eating disorders are pigeonholed as a problem affecting only one tiny segment of the population, how is that going to affect how willing people are to seek treatment? How does that further myths that a huge segment of the population’s experiences don’t matter? How does that make people feel who, already struggling with serious physical and mental health issues, are told by the media that they’re not sick enough” or “thin enough” or “white enough” to have an eating disorder?

It needs to stop.

The ever-fabulous Melissa Fabello (who I’ve worked with and sung the praises of before, if you remember) is teaming up with the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) to bring you Untold Truths: The Marginalized Voices Project. In its own words:

The Marginalized Voices Project is a collaboration between the National Eating Disorders Association and feminist activist and editor of Everyday Feminism, Melissa A. Fabello. Together, we’re calling for stories that focus on underrepresented experiences and communities in order to create a platform for people to share what it means to suffer (and recover) from an eating disorder.

Our goal is to create a collection of stories that tells the whole truth – by spanning the entire spectrum, highlighting stories from people of marginalized identities and that challenge misconceptions – so that we can present the world with what the reality of most eating disorders look like.

Marginalized Voices Social Image 1 (1) Marginalized Voices_Facebook2 (1) Marginalized Voices_Facebook3 (1) Marginalized Voices_Facebook4 (1)

Interested in sharing your story? Know someone else who might be? Visit this link for more information. Basic guidelines include:

  • Personal narrative, creative nonfiction, or memoir-style
  • Between 1,500 and 2,500 words
  • Deadline is August 15th, 2014

Share this movement far and wide, and let’s break down ED myths and misrepresentations together.

Join Us on Monday for #AdiosED!

AdiosED2

February is National Eating Disorders Awareness Month! If you’re looking for a way to celebrate your recovery journey or that of a loved one, if you need support and inspiration during your process and are on the lookout for resources,  if you want to educate yourself on what eating disorders really mean in our society and in our lives, or if you just want to spend some time on Twitter with me and my colleagues, have I got an event for you.

This Monday, February 24th, Adios Barbie and the National Eating Disorders Association will be hosting our second annual #AdiosED Twitter party, from 8-9pm EST. We will be using the hashtag #AdiosED to organize our conversations around eating disorder recovery, support, and education. Are you doing anything Monday night? Cancel it – this will be an amazing conversation!

Our theme for #AdiosED 2014 is mythbusting, particularly in terms of diverse communities. When eating disorders are represented in the media (and I’m not talking about “does she or doesn’t she need rehab” tabloids, which is a topic for another day), they are primarily represented as a rich, upper-middle-to-upper-class, cis-gendered, late-teens white female problem. Now, if the number of hyphens and commas I needed to use to make that sweeping generalization is any indication, this cross-section of the population clearly does not represent the reality of those who suffer from eating disorders. Possibly you’ve seen the hashtag #eatingdisordersareforwhitewomen, which evolved out of this post on Black Girl Dangerous about the whitewashing and limited representation of eating disorders. If not, check it out.

Clearly, this representation problem needs to end. Eating disorders are shrouded in enough myth and misunderstandings to lose yourself in. They’re lifestyle choices. They’re extreme diets. They’re not real mental illnesses. They’re something you want to have, because then you could finally lose weight. Nobody but celebrities and spoiled rich girls get eating disorders. None of this is true. And the more accurate information we can get out there, the better.

And that’s where #AdiosED comes in. Our discussion will be moderated by our five amazing panelists:

Other eating disorder specialists and activists will be in attendance to help answer your questions and shatter destructive eating disorder myths once and for all.

So what do you say? Will you join us Monday night at 8pm EST and help us say Adios to EDs? I’ll be there – will you?

For more information and to RSVP, visit our Facebook event here. You can also read a more in-depth version of our panelists’ biographies here, and view the transcript of last year’s #AdiosED event here.1002646_620178184697787_646126749_n