Delightfully Disturbing.

Delightfully Disturbing

A Review of “She Walks in Shadows” Edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles (Innsmouth Free Press, 2015).

By Derek Newman-Stille

  

“She Walks in Shadows” opens up a space of question and critique of Lovecraftian fiction, subversively playing with the tales of H.P. Lovecraft to create a shadow text to his work. The women who wrote this anthology delve into Lovecraftian ideas and modes of expression to pull out the creeping horror of Lovecraft and the power of fear while critiquing Lovecraft’s colonial, racist, and sexist ideologies. They use the power of their own writing to explore those shadowy edges of Lovecraftian manuscripts, pulling the essential otherness out of his texts and playing with the things that Lovecraft would have feared most. 

“She Walks in Shadows” is a brilliant example of the power to use othered voices to add to the complexity of a mythos, inserting new perspectives into the fiction of a dead author. Editors Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles collected a series of stories that perform a necromantic act, resurrecting Lovecraft while changing him, modifying him, and allowing his mythos to include voices that he wouldn’t have included. These texts capture the creeping darkness and uncertainty that Lovecraft bled into his work – the cosmic horror that causes readers to question and critique their position in relationship to a universe that is so much larger than us and in comparison to which we are insignificant. They capture the horror of looking into the cosmic void and realising that we are tiny, silent voices in a universe that is largely uninterested in us. These texts explore the horror of insignificance and uncertainty. They capture the power of the complex world to show us our own simplicity… and they show us that sometimes the most complex things about us are our fears. 

These texts capture all of Lovecraft’s countercultural potential while disassembling (perhaps even dismembering) Lovecraft’s sexism, homophobia, colonial attitude and racism by proposing a more complex world. These are tales that disturb easy narratives of hegemonic control, that delve into the inky darkness and pull out all of the voices that have been pushed there and silenced by a society that favours only certain voices. 

To find out more about She Walks in Shadows, visit Innsmouth Free Press’ website at http://www.innsmouthfreepress.com/blog/books/she-walks-in-shadows/

Advertisements

Sexist Con: Geek Gatekeeping and the Convention

By Derek Newman-Stille

The topic of geek gatekeeping has been discussed a lot recently, and I have previously discussed it in my post “My Cane is Not a Costume” https://speculatingcanada.ca/2014/04/07/my-cane-is-not-a-costume-convention-exclusions-and-ways-to-think-about-oppression-at-cons/ , but I wanted to talk a bit about how the structures of fan conventions can sometimes add to the specific incidents of sexism that are perpetuated by fans.

Much as I did in my post “My Cane is Not a Costume”, I am not going to refer to the specific Convention that I am using as the case study for this experience because I believe that many of these issues can apply to numerous genre conventions and that we should look at geek gatekeeping as a whole, rather than direct attention at one specific con.

When I refer to “structures at fan convention”, I am referring to the overall planned events and actions of those representing the con. These set the tone by which fans react to others at the convention.

As in previous years at this convention, and as others have mentioned about fan conventions in general, there were the typical issues of sexual oppression. Women were leered at by men, propositioned by men, and quizzed by men about their knowledge about particular fandoms, creating an atmosphere of discomfort for women and issues that women had to deal with that men did not. Male fans showed a sense of entitlement to stare at, touch, and proposition women.

One of the structural issues I observed in microcosm was a “professional interviewer” on a panel for a television series that featured a post-apocalyptic world. The questions were divided along gender lines to reify ideas that women and men occupy different skills sets and try to suggest that women’s concerns are largely domestic. Male actors wee asked about their acting experience, about whether they are good with weapons and whether they shoot them in their lives off screen. Female actors were asked about romantic relationships in the show and about whether their characters are going to be having babies. Women were further asked about how emotionally harrowing it was to be on set all day and to deal with the charged emotional nature of the show. Despite the fact that one of the women questioned played a character who was an excellent sword-wielder, she was told by the interviewer “obviously you don’t use a weapon in real life”, inferring that it is more likely for a male actor to be interested in weapons use outside of the show than it is for a woman to do so. This dichotomous questioning first of all relegates women and men to different worlds and assumes that they cannot cross interests or experiences. Secondly, the types of questions asked of the actresses were focused on an assumed domesticity, vulnerability, and emotional nature, whereas the male actors were asked about questions of skill.

These types of questions shape a dichotomous view of gender that casts women in a peripheral role, even when they are, themselves, the people that fans are coming to see. When fans see this occurring at the official level, it reinforces the types of gender divisions and alienating of women that occurs at the fan level.

A strong example of geek gatekeeping being structurally created can be seen in the Cosplay shows, where identity is on display for all of those who are watching people perform in the costumes of their chosen characters. For this particular Cosplay show, an announcer was chosen who has reinforced the characterizing of women as sexual objects. Whenever women were on stage with little clothing, the announcer would leer at them and say in a sexual voice “I love my job.” This was not a singular event, but rather occurred every time a women was on stage with a costume that revealed her body shape. He at times would comically chase women across the stage as though stalking them… at least he and much of the audience seemed to consider it comical. But what concerns me is that this is not comical, and expressing laughter at his behavious entrenches the notion of considering women as sexual objects as a taken-for-granted norm and something to be laughed at, which is why fans assume that leering at women is both acceptable and comical and why several fans expressed the notion that “if they dress like that, I should have the right to stare”, “those costumes are distracting”, and “she could have taken more off than that”.

The announcer created a place where these characteristics are considered normative and not problematic. At times he also said things like “she had a nice bum”, “I love my job. All the pretty girls”, and “I am an old man and I get to be a creepy old man.” His entitlement to view women as sexual objects abstracts to the overall culture of viewing women as sexual objects and not as fans themselves.

Although I have only referred to a few select events, I hope to point to overall issues whereby fan conventions create or at least to reinforce a cultural environment of gendered oppression. Fan conventions are not solely responsible for geek gatekeeping or the oppression of women, but it is important for us as fans, as geeks, to be looking at the way that certain sexisms are reinforced and given cultural value.

 

Sexist Oppression is her Kryptonite

A Review of Faith Erin Hicks’ The Adventures of Superhero Girl (Dark Horse Books, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Image of Superhero Girl courtesy of http://www.adventuresofsuperherogirl.com/archive/

Image of Superhero Girl courtesy of http://www.adventuresofsuperherogirl.com/archive/

The life of Faith Erin Hicks’s comic book superheroine Superhero Girl is marked by identity crises, many of which are inspired by a figure who has become her arch nemesis… and the arch nemesis of many women in fan communities, the man who thinks of women in fandoms as “fake geek girls”. The term ”fake geek girl” is one used by conservative males in the genre fan community to try to alienate women from fandoms. These are the same type of males who will approach women at cons and quiz them about their knowledge of fandoms in an attempt to “prove” they don’t belong there. It is another element of con sexism and “geek gatekeeping”.

Superhero Girl encounters geek gatekeeping when searching for an arch nemesis. She is approached by a man who quizzes her about various aspects of the superhero genre that he believes are canonical: asking if she can fly, asking for her origin story, telling her that she needs to have a tragic catalyst for her desire to become a superhero. When he discovers that “all” she can do is leap over tall buildings, lift heavy objects, and shoot rays from her eyes, he tells her “then you’re not a real superhero”. He tells her the rules she should be using to live her life like “Rule one: You gotta have a tragedy in your past that made you want to become a superhero. Two: you need a uniform complete with logo, although spandex is optional. And finally, of course, a villainous archnemesis.” He concludes by telling her “If you don’t follow the rules, you’re just some nobody in a mask.” Her arch nemesis excludes her from the very job that she is doing on a regular basis, superheroing, even though he, himself is not a superhero. She is subjected to geek gatekeeping from her own profession. Faith Erin Hicks is able to illustrate the pervasiveness of geek gatekeeping by abstracting it onto a superhero who similarly faces the existential crisis that many female fans have when subjected to alienating techniques by male fans who want to cast women as an inescapable Other.

With its blend of wit and play with the genre, Faith Erin Hicks’ The Adventures of Superhero Girl is a definite classic. Superhero Girl is a hero who can be just as empowered giving a homeless person spare change as from fighting a giant space monster… and just as disempowered by forgetting to put on her mask, leaving her cape at home, and having to deal with her arrogant corporate superhero brother Kevin as she is by supervillains who manage to put the whammy on her. Plus, she has to deal with those awkward moments of running into ninjas at the grocery store or when she is applying for jobs. But, her superheroic activities are so practiced and proficient that she has most criminals trained so that all she needs to do is tell them to “put it back” when they rob banks to defeat them.

Hicks’ Superhero Girl is not powerful because of her superpowers (of which she has many), but rather in her ability to be fundamentally human and to play with the superhero genre overall.

You can find out more about the work of Faith Erin Hicks at http://faitherinhicks.com/personal.html

You can discover more about Superhero Girl at http://www.adventuresofsuperherogirl.com/ .

Adrift

A review of A.M. Dellamonica’s Child of a Hidden Sea (TOR, 2014)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Home is a complicated, multi-faceted, problematic notion, and A.M. Dellamonica captures this complexity in Child of a Hidden Sea. She begins her novel seemingly mid narrative, with her protagonist floating in the sea, facilitating the sense of dislocation for the reader that would shape Sophie’s experience of her new/old world. The reader is swept up by a whirlwind of prose and submerged in an unfamiliar realm, just as Sophie, in her quest to find her birth family, has been placed in a confusing muddle of conflicting stories, feelings of rejection, and torn obligations.

Sophie finds herself in a different world, one that is largely made up of islands located distantly from one another, and yet there is something familiar about this place. The stars are the same as on Earth, but the cultures and languages are entirely different… and there are species of animals that she as a scholar has never seen before on our Earth.

Sophie, motivated by a desire to discover, a desire to understand the unusual or unfamiliar is placed in a scholar’s dream – an entire world that is new and exciting… and yet her curiosity isolates her here. She is viewed with suspicion when she asks questions, interrogating things that those around her treat as taken-for-granted truths. This is a world of magic, which differs greatly from the comfortable world of home, governed by rules that she understands – physics, mechanical properties, and simple rules of causation. She treats this whole world as an object of inquiry. Her curiosity is seen as a threat and it only furthers her persistent feeling of rejection which has shaped her life but gained sharper focus when she finally met her birth mother, who rejected her and reacted with horror at her return.

She is filled with wonder at Stormwrack, a world which she discovers she has familial connections to. She alternates from feelings of belonging, finally finding a place of “home” and discomfort, particularly when she discovers a religious cult whose approach to the world is homophobic and sexist. When she brings her adopted brother Bram with her to Stormwrack, he encounters homophobic violence at the hands of this religious group as part of their general attempt to annex an entire island that is based on polyamorous notions of diverse sexual and love relationships.

Dellamonica explores the isolating power of homophobia and its ability to displace LGBTQ populations in her general narrative of displacement. Child of a Hidden Sea is powerful as a narrative because it embodies both curiosity and the desire to find a sense of home and place to belong as well as its ability to point out that displacement is still a persistant feature in our world, one that is further sharpened by economic inequalities, sexism, homophobia, and general power structures that serve to elevate certain groups of people over others.

You can discover more about the work of A.M. Dellamonica at http://alyxdellamonica.com/ .

To read more about Child of the Hidden Sea visit http://www.tor.com/stories/2014/05/child-of-a-hidden-sea-am-dellamonica-excerpt

Is it Literary if it has Social Commentary?

A review of OnSpec #95 vol 25 no 4 Edited by Diane L. Walton
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo from OnSpec  # 95, courtesy of http://www.onspec.ca

Cover photo from OnSpec # 95, courtesy of http://www.onspec.ca

 

This review is well- timed since I recently posted something about ableism, sexism, homophobia, and racism at fan conventions and have been thinking about ways to make SF fandom more inclusive. When reading OnSpec #95 vol 25 no 4, it occurred to me that the OnSpec editors are definitely doing their part to be inclusive by featuring stories that engage with a variety of different bodies and identities. One way that we can open fans to new ways of including diversity is to make sure that diversity is reflected in the SF works that we produce. OnSpec’s recently produced winter issue features works that engage with aging characters, LGBTQ2 or QUILTBAG populations, people in poverty, physical and psychological disability, and they do so in a way that raises questions about ableism, classism, and homophobia by giving the reader the opportunity to enter into the headspace of people who are often treated as abject by a society that discriminates against them.

Fiction provides us with an opportunity to exercise our skills in empathy, flowing in to the minds and experiences of characters as we read about them. Empathy is something that we all need to develop further and SF has the ability to let us venture into a variety of highly diverse minds and experiences.

Susan MacGregor begins this OnSpec with a discussion of the notion of “literary merit” and a reminder that a lot of the people who defend the notion that there is a “high literature” and that science fiction, fantasy, and horror cannot be it will often say that SF doesn’t make social contributions. Susan reminds the reader of the kinds of contributions that SF makes and mirrors some of the perspectives I have often espoused here on Speculating Canada that speculative fiction by its very nature opens things up to speculation, to question, and that by venturing into the weird realms of other worlds, other realities, and strange places, we can come back to our own world with questions, pondering the things we take for granted. It is very appropriate that this volume follows from her editorial with stories that feature characters who are often socially ostracized and exploring ideas about people in our own society who are treated like aliens and monsters. This exploration of those who are so often treated as ABnormal in situations that are abnormal (because they are set in the future or on other worlds or alternative histories) lets us question the idea of “normal” and come back to our own reality with a question about why so many people want to maintain a “normal” that excludes so many others. OnSpec 95, like other good works of SF opens OUR world to questions and lets us reassess it.

In addition to the -isms, OnSpec 95 invites readers to think about the damage caused by war whether it is physical injury to the body, environmental damage, psychological trauma, or damage to the community and notions of trust. The reader is encouraged to question our relationship to technology, deal with issues of addiction, plague, family violence, community secrets, memory, and the loss of selfhood itself. The fact that it does this social interrogation in a plague city of the future, in an alternative past full of necromantic powers and political intrigue, a future of prosthetic limbs and VR technology for coping with PTSD, a future of resource scarcity following international war, and a small town with a man who can sense truth makes it both incredibly entertaining and engaging.

OnSpec 95 binds narratives of loss together, creating a space for the interaction of future and past to talk about things that have become memory, things that we pine for, and things that we will feel the loss of in the future…. but these stories are ultimately about the present, about where and how we live NOW… and the authors ask us to question The Now to gain new insights about ourselves and the human experience.

We talk a lot about fantasy, science fiction, and horror as escapes, but I think that good speculative fiction is not an escape, but a temporary abstraction from reality that lets us come back to our own world with new insights, new ideas, and new ways of questioning the “norms” that we take for granted. Send me to an alien world any day if I can come back from it with a spaceship full of questions for this world!!

To read reviews of some of the individual stories in OnSpec 95, see:

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2014/04/23/performing-reality-living-fiction

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2014/04/27/between-coping-and-addiction

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2014/04/30/a-necromantic-disregard

You can discover more about OnSpec at onspec.ca .

My Cane is Not A Costume – Convention Exclusions and Ways to Think About Oppression at Cons

An editorial by Derek Newman-Stille

A Geek Diversity assemblage by Derek Newman-Stille

A Geek Diversity assemblage by Derek Newman-Stille

On a regular basis at speculative and other fan conventions, I get knocked around, shoved, pushed out of the way. People assume that because I am using a cane, I am taking up more than my fair space, after all, I have THREE whole legs on the ground (two legs and a cane). I hope this is because they assume that my cane is the equivalent to their lightsaber, a performative piece, a part of a costume… That is my hope.

However, I have seen issues of systemic ableism at cons. There have been recent discussions of the sexism that happens at cons, and I hope to add to that discussion by brining attention to other (perhaps associated) forms of oppression such as racism, homophobia, and ableism. Sexism still continues at cons. I just recently attended a con where a panelist referred to the only female person on a panel he was on as “little lady”, and I certainly see it in the ogling of women that happens constantly.

Some cons have started to create harassment policies, which, while a start, are still not addressing the underlying cultural issues where harassment is considered okay. Most of the people who engage in harassing behaviour don’t look at the harassment policy because they don’t think that they harass people. Harassment policies are an important first step toward creating a safe space for diversity, but we need to find further ways of creating and maintaining those safe spaces.

A lot of people who attend cons are people that, in their past, have been bullied, and I wonder if this has created a notion that “I am the person who is bullied, and therefore I can’t be bullying others”, which may lead to a lack of critical self questioning about “are my words or actions bullying or making others uncomfortable?”.  We can think about this collective act of being bullied as a way of teaching ourselves to be aware of the experience of oppression and how it plays out against individuals and groups of people and work toward creating an oppression-free space. After all, since we have been bullied, we should be able to empathize with others who have and are experiencing it now. A good step that we could take at cons would be to offer a panel that allows us to talk about bullying and the creative ways that we can work toward ending oppression. Rather than specifying types of bullying (since this often means that people who haven’t experienced that specific type of bullying won’t attend), a general discussion of bullying of fans can be discussed.

I have noticed a great deal of homophobia in the general mocking of queerness, homophobic language, and in the reaction, particularly of fans to males cosplaying as female characters – the reactions are those of disgust and censor. This year at a fan convention (I will leave off specifics here since I want this to be a general discussion, not an attack on a specific con), I attended the cosplay masquerade because I enjoy theatrical play…. But what I witnessed was a systemic “ewww” from a large number of audience members when the sexy woman in costume on stage revealed his very male face under his mask (I use “he” here because I don’t think the cosplayers were trans, I think they were just having some fun celebrating female characters). But there is an issue when the reaction to gender play is met with cries of “what the hell” by audience members… and this is tied to the sexist looking at women as objects of desire and the revelation that their object of desire is male under the mask or make up.

I have noticed ableism (discrimination against the disabled) in con staff at various cons telling people in wheelchairs that they can’t use the elevators closest to events because “it will let you cut in line”, in the number of people who move people in wheelchairs (literally pushing the chair of another person out of their way) or stand in front of them, and, personally, in the number of people who run into, push, or otherwise knock me or my cane to the ground. I noticed it at a recent con when I was told that I couldn’t sit on the ground off to the side because other people might want to stand there (despite the fact that I am sitting due to pain and the inability to stand much longer). I experienced it again when I set my coat on the edge of a table that was empty apart from a few pamphlets at the far side and empty water glasses around the cooler, so that I could adjust my cane to stop being in pain, and juggle the items I was carrying, only to have someone shove my coat to the floor. Even though I explained that I am disabled and in pain and just needed to set my coat down for a moment in the empty space at the corner of the table, I was told “I don’t care what your EXCUSE is. This is my table.”

Our society seems to have become one that believes that disability means “disability perks”, that somehow because the larger bathroom stall is marked with a disabled sign and the closest parking space has a disabled sign, that this means that disabled people are getting “perks”, “extras”, things that the able bodied don’t get. I think a lot of people forget that this is because we need more space to maneuver our slightly different bodies, we need closer spaces to keep our pain levels down or give us room to exit our vehicles by chair. Rather than paying attention to the needs of bodily difference, there is an assumption that “fair” means “the same”, without understanding that my “day’s activity” may cause me debilitating pain where an able-bodied person’s “day’s activity” won’t. I may need to sit. I may need to rest. I may need to not be pushed or shoved because these cause extra pain on a body that is already stretched to its tolerance limits so that I can enjoy the same con, share my experiences with other conventioners, and maybe even give some panels that will entertain.

I have talked a lot about my own experiences here, but I think we need to pay attention to the ways that we exclude, the ways that we accidentally make certain bodies uncomfortable, pained, or endangered… because most of these behaviours ARE ACCIDENTAL, most of them are not intended to be malicious but are rather the products of a society overall that has behaviours and attitudes that are sexist, racist, ableist, and homophobic. We can start to change this by being vigilant, by paying attention to the ways that our words or actions may exclude or oppress. We need to check ourselves AND OTHERS when they objectify women, try to claim that they know a culture better than the people who belong to it, make generalizations about race or ethnicity, make a space inaccessible, or make remarks that make GBLTQ people feel uncomfortable or threatened (all of which I have seen at cons).

There are genuine acts of kindness and support from our convention community – people have often held doors for me, pulled chairs from the stacks so I can sit, helped to respond to homophobic remarks by others, and these are things to be celebrated, acts of a community of bright, interesting, creative people who are working together to access that shared creative, brilliant, excited, fantastically geeky community of different individuals.

With all of our geeky enthusiasm, brilliance, and creativity, we can figure out ways to shift a culture that excludes or oppresses certain people. We can work together to shift some of these embedded ideas that privilege certain bodies at cons.

My cane is not a costume … and there is room for all of the assistive tech, attitudes, and thoughts needed to include diverse bodies AND all of our costume paraphernalia. Let’s think about some new ways that we can make our cons places of comfort for all of our expressions, needs, and interests.