Tuesday, October 9, 2012


I've gotten some private flack for yesterday's post, and I wanted to address one issue in particular.   A friend objected to my post on the grounds that it was "making people choose" between myself and my ex.  He claimed that because speaking out put my friends in an awkward position, I shouldn't do so.

"Making people choose" at the end of a relationship is generally viewed as a terrible, petty thing to do, and often it is.  Lots of couples spend time scoring points off of each other and engaging in acts of malice.  They demand explicitly that their friends choose sides, and then punish anyone who doesn't take theirs.

This is wrong.  It is also not what I'm doing.

What I am doing is talking about what happened to me, what he did to me, in a public way.  There is overwhelming pressure on people who have been abused to not do this.  It makes those who want to ignore the abuse uncomfortable, and they believe that their comfort is more important than the voices of those who have been harmed.

I am not doing this to make my friends choose; I'm doing it to make them see.  I don't particularly care if they remain friends with my ex; I assume they will.  I care that they understand who I am, what I've lived through, what I'm struggling with now.  As far as I know, friends are supposed to care about that sort of thing.  Certainly, I care if my friends are hurting or struggling, even if those struggles are the result of a truth that is upsetting to learn.

I also am doing this to make the fact of abuse more public.  Most of the women I know and a good portion of the men have experienced abuse firsthand.  Some have been assaulted by a stranger, but most have been harmed by a loved one.  Most of them don't talk about it in public.  Most of their abusers are well regarded in their communities.  This makes abusers feel safe.  They trust that their victims won't talk about what they did.  They trust that if their victims speak out, the community they share will shame them for it.  That's an enormous problem, and the only way to address it is for those of us who have been through things to speak out, to make others acknowledge the fact of the abuse despite the shaming.  Yes, that makes people in the communities in question uncomfortable.  You know what's a lot more uncomfortable?  Being abused.

I've also been told that not attending events that he attends is "making people choose".

The last time I was in a room with my ex was at a friend's birthday.  Seeing him made me so uncomfortable that I had to leave early and had an anxiety attack that lasted for hours afterwards.  I don't avoid my ex to make people choose; I avoid him to make my life a better, happier, and safer place.  To accomplish that, I'm willing to skip any event that he's at.  It makes me sad that I don't see the people I would see at those events, but nothing is worth what it would cost me to attend.  I've never asked anyone to stop inviting my ex to functions, and I never will.  It doesn't bother me particularly that they do.  My choice isn't about their choice; it's my own.

If people are genuinely sad about not seeing me, I'm more than willing to arrange to hang out with them in a way that doesn't involve my ex.  I'm more than willing to meet people for lunch on a Saturday or play a board game or talk on the phone.  I hang out with friends from both within and without the circle in this manner rather regularly.  If they're willing to do without him for an afternoon, I'm almost always available.

What I'm not willing to do is keep pretending that I'm ok.  What I'm not willing to do is to sacrifice my voice to the god of other people's comfort.  This is my life.  I'm sharing it with you.  You're free to love me or hate me, but you're wrong if you think that your discomfort is a reason that I should be silent.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Costs of Friendship

I've been dealing with a lot of anger and depression lately.  It's been keeping me up nights; I spend the whole day struggling to stay busy, reading, playing games, trying to get a few useful things done, and I mostly am ok.  Then the night hits, and I turn off the lights, and close my eyes, and the anger takes hold.  Sometimes I'm so furious I want to scream, to throw things, to tear my hair out.  Sometimes I just hurt, and it's like a wound under my solar plexus that aches and bleeds and never heals.  Sometimes I think about hurting myself, although it's not something I'm likely to ever act on.  I've considered writing about it a number of times, usually at 5 am, around the time I realize I'm not sleeping at all that night.  However, I ultimately keep deciding not to.  I think that's been the wrong decision, so here goes.

One of the perennially screwed up dynamics in most geek social circles is the emphasis put on transitive, absolute, unconditional friendship.  These are widely known as geek social fallacies, and I have yet to interact with a geeky circle that doesn't embrace some or all of them.  The circle I spent the most time with for most of my adult life embraces a few fairly comprehensively; in that group, (which I will simply call "the circle") everyone is expected and required to pretend to like everyone else, whether or not they do.  There is a strong belief that members of the circle would do anything to help a friend (ie. other member of the circle) in the same way that most people would help a member of their own family.

All of these things seem positive on the surface.  After all, how could it be bad to be nice to each other?  What harm is there in making everyone feel included, whether you like them in and individual, personal sense or not?  Even if you dislike someone, how does it do any harm to pretend you don't in order to avoid rocking the boat?

Before I go any further, I want to make something clear: there are a number of people in the circle whom I love, and whose friendship I cherish.  They've stood by me through some very rough times, and I appreciate that.  There are also a large number of people in the circle whom I've never been close to, who've never done me any harm, and whom I think are perfectly nice.  This is in no way a condemnation of any of them, or really of anyone.  Even the people I'm currently angry at (and I am angry) generally haven't done me any intentional harm; it's the group dynamic more than the individual people that I think is problematic.

Everybody Loves You (Sometimes)

About a month and a half ago, I helped a friend get out of an abusive relationship.  The circle's reaction to her leaving, and to my helping her was both unreasonable and upsetting.  This group of people who always claim they'd do anything to help a friend faulted me for actually adhering to that principle.  They did this because the other person involved was also a member of the circle, and the breakup put them in the inconvenient position of having to consider whether one of their friends might have done something deeply wrong.  They clearly didn't want to face this possibility.  Instead, I was told that the way I helped wasn't fair to him, that he had the right to a final confrontation, that she was wrong to leave him without giving him a chance to respond, as though his right to yell at her one last time was more important than her right to not be abused.  It was implied that she needed proof of his bad behavior in order to be believed, despite his long standing reputation for a bad temper, and that only physical abuse really counted.

I've seen this reaction before.  When I left my husband, I didn't talk very much about his abuse, and it was largely to avoid rocking the boat.  God forbid my decade of misery make people uncomfortable at poker night.  I tried to remain friends with him, convinced that it was somehow the right thing to do, despite the many ways in which he'd harmed me.  I was encouraged in this; everyone told me how wonderfully I was behaving.  It didn't occur to them that it might be doing me serious harm.  When I finally did talk about it, finally stopped speaking to him, people found reasons to ignore it or dismiss what I had to say, as I was well aware they would.  They liked him, and therefore anything I said needed to be sublimated, reduced to "oh well, it was a bad relationship for them both".

The one time I tried to leave my husband, I went to stay with friends in this circle.  When I told them he hit me, they said they'd "talk to him".  When they did, they told him they "knew I was hard to live with", but that hitting me was wrong.   Let me be clear here: my ex husband didn't just hit me.  He was verbally, emotionally, and sexually abusive as well.  He did me significant harm.  However, apparently the fact that I'm a slob and wanted him to maybe not drink a bottle of gin every night justified all but the worst of his behavior to them.  In fairness, they didn't know about all of it; I was ashamed to say how often he'd hit me, afraid that they wouldn't believe me because I'm larger than he is.  I didn't even understand some of the sexual abuse as abuse; when I told him I wasn't interested and he did what he wanted to anyway, I thought that was part of being in a relationship, felt like I didn't have the right to say no.  It was only the one time that he was drunk and violent about it and I had the courage to actually refuse that I understood it as attempted rape, and not just more bad sex.

Even writing this now is hard.  I know people will be angry at me for talking about it, for the harm it might do to him (although I haven't named him here), and that some will choose not to believe me, because it's easier than seeing the truth.  I can't stop them from doing that, but I can say that it sucks.  I can say that a circle where everyone is your friend unless you really need help, a circle where you have to hide the horrible things that are happening to you because no one will believe you, is ultimately a circle where you have very few friends indeed.

Sometimes a Friend Isn't A Friend

Another serious problem comes from the belief that everyone in the circle has to be friends with everyone else, whether they actually like them or not.  The spectrum of socially acknowledged responses to other members of the circle is constricted to a ridiculous point, until it only includes like, love and (ironically) hate.  It's not simply that you're not supposed to mildly dislike other members of the circle; it's that the possibility that you might is not acknowledged.  Should you express such a mild dislike, it's considered worse than actual, virulent hatred.        

For example, there is a couple in the circle whom I've never really gotten along with.  I don't hate them; I simply don't like them either, and would rather avoid spending time with them.  I don't dislike them because they're bad people; they don't regularly drown kittens or feed orphans gruel.  In fact, I think they're fairly good people, overall.  I merely avoid them because they rub me the wrong way and make me slightly uncomfortable; it's a personality thing.  Outside of the circle, that's perfectly acceptable; people have a right to choose their friends.  Inside the circle, it's considered petty and judgmental.  Who am I to decide that I like one person and not another?

Now, obviously this is frustrating for the person who has committed the great sin of unliking, but as someone who's been on both sides of it, I can say with certainty that it's also unpleasant and confusing for the person who is mildly disliked.  The best case scenario is one where the dislike is mutual, as I believe it was between myself and the couple I mentioned.  Everyone involved feels somewhat uncomfortable, but no one gets hurt.  The real problem comes when the dislike is not mutual.  Outside the circle if you don't like someone there are straightforward cues you can give them that let them know you don't want to engage with them.  There are kinder and meaner ways of doing it, but in general it's fairly easy to be clear about your disinterest.

In the circle (which is composed of geeks, many of whom aren't great at signals in any case), those cues are muffled by the pressure to be friends with everyone.  This leads to a shallow kind of group "friendship" where everyone is nice to everyone else, like them or loathe them.  Because of this, it's easy to end up in the awkward position of trying to more particularly befriend someone who doesn't particularly like you but isn't allowed to say so or indicate it in any obvious way.  Until you figure out what's going on, the experience is frustrating, and once you have done so it is embarrassing.  After all, no one wants their friendship to be an imposition.  Being a mildly awkward geek girl, I've been in that situation a number of times, and have generally been mortified to realize that my offer of friendship was so completely unwelcome.

Nice is Not Kind

Geeks in general and the circle in particular have a tendency to conflate the idea of being nice with that of being kind.  What I mean by kindness is treating others with respect and consideration, whether they're particularly your friends or not.  What I mean by niceness is putting a pleasant face on things, whether they're pleasant or not.   Kindness is being gentle when you let someone know you don't want to hang out with them.  Niceness is pretending you like someone even though you don't because you don't want to seem mean.  We're all guilty of being merely nice instead of kind sometimes.  We're taught it from a young age: it's nice to invite all of the children to your birthday party, even if you don't want some of them to come.  It's not nice to bring a treat unless you can share it with everyone.

Most people eventually come to understand that niceness is a way of emulating or teaching kindness, not an end in itself.  However, the circle and many other social groups like it have made it into an ultimate value.  Niceness becomes toxic when being nice becomes more important than kindness.  It isn't nice to choose between your friends, so many members of the circle bend over backwards to believe that all bad relationships are cases of mutual fault rather than acknowledging that one partner might actually have done something wrong.  It becomes a problem when everyone's determination to be nice harms a person who's actually been abused or leaves people who don't fit the group well wondering why they have so many acquaintances and so few real friends.

I don't fit the circle very well, or rather it doesn't really fit me.  I have some very good friends there whom I love as individuals, but the group as a whole feels weird and constraining to me.  I feel a bit like an octagonal peg in a round hole; I fit in the slot, but it never quite works.  That's not anyone's fault; I'm a loud, individualistic, opinionated person who is not willing to change who I am to fit the group dynamic.  That makes me a hard fit in any group.  However, the reason that it took me so long to realize it was the overwhelming niceness of the group.  Because everyone always seemed to like me (and everyone else), it was hard for me to understand how few of them actually cared for me.  That discovery has been a slow and painful process.  I don't fault any individual for this; again, it's the group dynamic.  That said, I do think that if the circle and groups like it devoted less energy to being nice and more energy to being kind, everyone would benefit.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Problem with Hotscaping

There's a picture going around the internet comparing the way Harriet Tubman looks in the existing photographs that were taken of her to the image of her presented in Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  Here are the pictures, side by side, of Tubman and the actress who was chosen to play her.

For those of you who slept through high school History, Harriet Tubman was a slave in the mid 1800's who, after escaping to Philadelphia, returned to the south many times to free others, becoming the most famous conductors on the Underground Railroad.  When it became illegal for northern states to shelter former slaves, she helped shepherd former slaves to Canada, where slavery was prohibited.  During the Civil War, she was a union spy and a scout, and led an armed expedition that freed 70 slaves deep in Confederate territory.  After the war, she was an active proponent of women's suffrage.

Harriet Tubman was also a dark skinned black woman whose face and form does not jibe with our current standards of beauty.  That didn't make a bit of difference to her ability to save hundreds of people from slavery, to spy for her country, or to become renowned for her courage and selflessness.  It also didn't prevent her from marrying twice.  However, Hollywood has made it clear that those qualities, admirable as they are by anyone's standards, are not enough.  In order to be portrayed in a Hollywood movie - one not specifically about serious issues of race - she also has to be hot.

The photographs we have of Tubman are of a short, very dark skinned, plain-faced woman sporting the serious mien typical of mid-nineteenth century portraits.  Instead of honoring that fact by casting a woman who resembled her, the creators of Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter made her into a tall, slender, relatively light skinned woman who meets or exceeds all of our culture's normative standards for beauty.  Let me be clear in saying that this is also an issue of racism, and a serious one.  However, I've seen several good articles on the subject, including this one at Your Black World, and so I'm addressing myself to the ways in which it's more generally misogynistic, and part of a cultural trend towards Hotscaping.

This is where people tell me I'm taking things too seriously.  After all,  Abe Lincoln wasn't really fighting vampires during the Civil War (at least as far as we know).  The underground railroad wasn't as fast as an actual train, and any number of other things portrayed in the movie simply didn't happen.

To me, that argument misses the point.  Of course a serious movie would pay more attention to getting the details right.  However, they notably didn't make Abe Lincoln look like a cross between Brad Pitt and a sparkly vampire.  Instead, they focused on making him look like Abe Lincoln.  That's because the point of Abe Lincoln - even an Abe Lincoln being played in a silly movie about vampires - isn't that he's attractive.  It's that he was a great man who accomplished amazing things.

The same is true of Tubman, so why change her appearance?  Why make her look like some male fantasy version of the History Channel?  Why not offer the part to a dark skinned, middle aged character actress instead of a light skinned ingenue?  The answer to that question is also the problem: almost every portrayal of women in media is fundamentally linked to sex.

No matter how strong, smart, or brave a woman in a story is, no matter how irrelevant beauty is to her story, Hollywood will always do its best to make her hot.  Even those few women who are portrayed as unattractive are being defined in terms of their beauty or lack thereof.  When was the last time a woman who isn't "Hollywood Beautiful" played a role without her lack of that beauty being an important factor in the story?  The point to having a less than perfectly attractive woman in a movie is typically either to denigrate her (because she's fat, because she's attached to a man who's not interested, etc.) or to show how she struggled and prospered despite her lack of beauty.

Hollywood isn't the only place where this is happening.  Portrayal of women as one-dimensional sex objects has always been something of a problem in comics and video games.  In many cases, that's slowly (think ice ages slow) improving.  Women in comics, video games, and geek media are usually still attractive to the point of absurdity, but at least now we sometimes get to - say - wear non-revealing clothing, shoot to kill, or fly the spaceship.  That doesn't negate the fact that women in geek media are expected to always be beautiful, that they are defined by their beauty, but baby steps.  

However, DC's recent reboot sexualized almost all of its female characters to a greater or lesser degree.  Notably, it took Amanda Waller, a tough, heavyset black woman, and made her slender and conventionally beautiful.  Grace at Gracetopia discussed this in depth when the reboot was first released, and her article is well worth a read.  They also took those characters who were already attractive and made them sexually promiscuous.  Starfire is the obvious example, and while they did explain her behavior eventually in story terms, they also chose to write that particular story.  "Generally free wheeling but ethical woman becomes sexually indiscriminate" is a very specific kind of story choice.  It allows the writers and artists to do a lot of scenes involving Starfire and sex, scenes which are more about titillation than character development.  The same could be said of the portrayal of the female characters in Arkham City.   

Obviously, this is happening in the broader sphere as well.  A young girl just used a petition to push Seventeen magazine into ending their practice of airbrushing the teenagers on their covers and in their pages to make them thinner and "prettier".  Jennifer Love Hewitt's breasts were sized down without her knowledge in a promotion for "The Client List".  Everywhere, women are being reshaped into what the media thinks we should look like.

This is a problem, and a big one.  It is a problem because it sends the message that beauty is not only the most important characteristic a woman can have (or lack), but the only important one.  Men can be admired because they're brave or brilliant, generous or successful, but a woman can only be admired for her beauty or derided for her lack of it.  All her other characteristics are secondary to whether or not she's "hot".  Both men and women are hearing this message loud and clear.

You can tell men are hearing it because of the forum threads on whether or not they'd sleep with this or that female game developer or journalist or actress.  You can tell because one of the principal ways in which men respond to discussions of misogyny is by calling the women having the discussion fat, slutty, or ugly.  You can tell because many men believe that the unwanted sexualization of real women who are not just characters in stories is "just a joke" or "not a big deal" or even "normal", and are willing to flame, harass, and threaten anyone who says otherwise.

And you can tell women are hearing it.  You can tell when Emily Yoffe of "Dear Prudence" tells a woman whose doctor says she's healthy that she should lose weight because her husband is finding her unattractive after childbirth.  You can tell because every diet fad gets grasped at, every possible beauty product tried to achieve or maintain the unreasonable standards our society has taught men to expect of us and us to expect of ourselves.  You can tell because of the tragic number of women killing themselves to be thin, or staying in abusive relationships because they believe that they don't deserve any better.

In short, Hotscaping is a part of the greater problem of misogyny, and it needs to end.

Why "Strident"

The dictionary defines strident as:


Loud and harsh; grating.
Presenting a point of view, esp. a controversial one, in an excessively and unpleasantly forceful way.

However, they fail to note that it's very strongly gendered. Generally, in usage it comes closer to meaning this:

strident: An adjective used to describe
A woman with a strong opinion.
A woman who is stating her opinion firmly and unapologetically in a manner more typical of a man, rather than being polite and self-deprecating.
A woman the men (and sometimes other women) in the room want to silence.

I am a woman of strong opinions. I am not polite and self-deprecating. I refuse to be silenced.
 In this blog, I will talk about things that make people uncomfortable; about misogyny in geek culture and beyond it, about the way we treat people who don't look the way we want them to.  I'll discuss why the ways in which we portray women in fiction matter, and how it influences what is expected out of us in the real world. I'll certainly talk about the harassment and abuse most women deal with every day, and the more acute and demeaning abuse some women experience at the hands of loved ones.  These are important issues, and I feel like I have something to say about them.  I know I'm far from the only voice saying it, but that doesn't make the message any less important.

Some of you may applaud me for doing so. Know that I'll appreciate it.

Some of you will inevitably try to shout me down. You'll tell me that I should be raped, that I am worthless, that I should shut up. You will say I'm not being polite enough, or that I'm taking things too seriously. To you I say: hit me with your best shot; I'm not afraid, and I'm not going anywhere.