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Speculative Fiction, Intersectional Feminism, and Dirty Jokes
So it turns out that Sarah Chrisman, the woman living her life as a wealthy Victorian whose Vox piece went viral yesterday, was interviewed on The View a couple of years ago when she was promoting her book on corsets. It’s short and worth a watch. Chrisman is camera-ready, displaying a bubbly personality well-suited for the kind of so-soft-it’s-porous “journalism” that passes for content on The View. The segment, illustrated with video of Chrisman doing various Victorian-ish tasks around the house and showing off the curves that her corseted life have given her, might as well be called “Slimming down the 1890s Way!”
In other words, the deeply misogynistic ideals of daytime television actually line up quite well with Chrisman’s pseudo-Victorian ideals. It’s super creepy if you start thinking about it for too long.
So I saw Ed link to the Vox piece yesterday. I read it, clicked over to Chrisman’s website, saw the deep wells of rich white privilege demonstrated all over the place, and posted it to my personal Facebook. Several of my friends (whose opinions I respect) pushed back a bit on my posting with some really good questions. This blog, then, is meant to respond to those criticisms in a single place rather than piecemeal among Facebook comments.
First, a caveat
Nothing that I write below is intended to in any way bully, harass, or damage Chrisman (or her husband). In the Vox piece (and on her website, again absolutely worth a visit to understand Chrisman and my criticisms of her) she makes claims of being harassed, assaulted, and insulted, even quoting a death threat. Any comments on this post (or on my Facebook wall, or anywhere else I have control) that veer towards the line of hateful speech towards Chrisman will be summarily deleted. I am not here to bully Chrisman, and frankly don’t care much about her as a person. I’m far more interested in the ideology she espouses, and the way that ideology is hidden by and allowed to fester by the bubbly persona you see on her website and in the video above.
On the Shoulders of Giants
I was going to go through and demonstrate with references exactly how problematic the lifestyle of the Chrismans is, but a ton of other writers did that job much, much better than I could. Lots of people have shared this Rebecca Onion piece over at Slate, and a few have shared this Storify by Creeping Krisandry. They are both worth reading, especially the Storify. Krisandry also posted a second Storify, responding to some critics and sharing a bit more context about herself and her criticisms. In that second Storify, Krisandry links to a blog post by Angus Johnson of Student Activism which is worth reading, and several of his tweets in which he shares passages of interest from one of Chrisman’s books. It turns out that Chrisman’s Victorian style isn’t just skin deep: she’s kinda meh on women’s suffrage and isn’t so much a fan of feminism generally. At one point, after being accosted by a rude and smelly hippie, she wonders aloud who the real oppressors are.
I recommend that readers go through the links above, looking especially at the sections from Chrisman’s book. Then watch that video from ABC again, and look at the way that casual internalized misogyny is part and parcel of Chrisman’s worldview. The obvious defense of Chrisman is that she is an eccentric young woman who has found her comfort and self-actualization in an unconventional place, but that she’s essentially harmless. I submit that based on the links above, the toxic conservative ideology that was only hinted beneath the veneer of the Vox piece is loud and proud in Chrisman’s longer works.
Because I don’t object to Chrisman’s eccentricity. I object to her reactionary ideology. If the above does not convince you, or if the segments of Chrisman’s book have been somehow taken out of context, I am more than happy to hear it. I suspect that the good-hearted and liberal persons I know who have defended Chrisman’s eccentricities to me would not, were the shoe on the other foot, be equally defended by Chrisman.
I’d like to note that none of the above is an attempt to silence, bully, or denigrate Chrisman based on her dress, lifestyle, wealth, et cetera. That there should be no censorship of Sarah Chrisman goes without saying. That I have the right to criticize her beliefs and speech should also go without saying.
Misfits, Loners, Weirdos, and Don’t-Fit-Ins
Where this is all leading, and why I felt it fine to post it on a Doctor Who podcast blog, is that I am obviously cut from a similar mold as Chrisman. Oh, I’ve no interest in playing dress-up with Victorian clothes or artifacts and I certainly don’t live my misfit nature to the degree that Chrisman does, but I’m a polyamorous man with a long beard who spends an inordinate amount of time talking about extreme politics in the context of an old television show. I wear geeky T-shirts, I live my life for myself and those I love rather than for society at large, and I’d like to continue to do so unmolested thank-you-very-much.
When Chrisman blogs about her harassment on a day that should have been a fun trip out (even if she does like to throw around the word “pervert” way more than I’m comfortable with) my heart is with her and I rage against those who will not allow her bodily autonomy. (Even in the above clip from The View, one of the hosts attempts to “goose” Chrisman’s dress. This is seriously not okay.)
I believe it’s possible to hold the nuanced view that Chrisman should simultaneously be allowed to live the life she wants to live without being groped and yet be criticized for the ideology that goes along with her favorite time period. People holding minority ideologies and/or lifestyles, even those we find toxic, have the perfectly valid right to exist and spread if they can — this is the basis of a pluralistic modern society and the very definition of liberalism. But that right does not preclude the right to be criticized for it.
So how is Chriman’s Victorian life like my love of Doctor Who and leftist politics? Well, we’re obviously both way outside the mainstream of the societies in which we live. But loving Doctor Who, even if one loves it enough to base an entire lifestyle around it (a TARDIS-themed house, twenty-four hour cosplay, etc.) is not equivalent to spreading a false history (as illustrated above) about Victorian life. Further, I do believe it’s the responsibility of those of us within these minority subcultures specifically to speak up about the toxicity that may be found within; any regular listener to our podcast knows that we speak regularly and at length about the damaging nature of majority-white-male nerd culture, and we take seriously the responsibility to spread liberal and pluralistic values within what is often a damaged culture.
To extend that back to the Victorian lifestyle, were Chrisman living this life she loves so much but using her educational platform to criticize the values of the world that created them, I’d have no argument with her! Were Chrisman showing an awareness of the privilege that allows her to live this way, a criticism of the system that abused millions worldwide to provide her with the ore in her fountain pens and the cotton in her corsets, or an awareness of the difference between choosing to wear a corset daily and being forced by society’s strictures to do so, I would be happy to leave her to her happy lifestyle and cheer her on in her mission to educate and understand.
It’s the ideology, largely founded in ignorance, that is the source of my criticism. Whether that ignorance is honest or willful I don’t know, but there’s nothing I’ve seen from her work that indicates any large degree of self-awareness about these issues.
And that’s the problem.
If a reader finds this, has looked at the links and dug into the resources provided and still thinks Chrisman is just a harmless eccentric, consider these alternate realities. Instead of appreciating the aesthetics and technology of Victorian-era Washington, suppose…
…she lived in a circa-1850 plantation home in Mississippi, appreciating the natural farmland/clothing/architecture, and employing laborers to grow and pick cotton on the land. In this instance, would it matter if all the laborers were black?
…she lived the life of a 1950s housewife, full-on with a tube television set, period-accurate furniture and appliances, never reading/viewing/listening to any media made after 1959 or so and writing books about what the people of 1950 could teach modern feminists. In this case would it then matter if she was participating in what we might call the “Ozzie and Harriet” fifties or if she also appreciated beat poetry, modern art, et cetera?
…she lived in a 1960s commune, sharing household chores equally with several other women who raised children together, but still under the thumb of an oppressive male ruling system.
Personally, I find some of these much more damaging than others, pretty much based on how strongly I stand against the ideology behind the false versions of history spread by the replication of culture. Maybe readers disagree. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with any of it. I look forward to comments.
In Summary: Criticizing Culture
As a person with non-mainstream political views, I feel it is incumbent upon myself to criticize those systems and ideas that I find harmful in modern society. Living in this world is to be complicit in many of these systems (a migrant worker picked the onion I used this afternoon, this computer contains materials mined in some hellhole in Africa or Southeast Asia, the clothes on my back were made by a wage slave making pennies a day, et cetera), and my ideology tells me it’s my responsibility to criticize those systems and try to change them where I can.
What I ask of Chrisman (and others like her who live lives rejecting modernity in favor of some idealized past) is to do the same. Living her life as a Victorian means more than just wearing old clothes, but also using that position of education (that she has taken on herself through her museum, website, books!) to share the not-nice portions of that same past, and to acknowledge that the objects she fetishizes were made in a particular place in history, with their own (often bloody) origins.
“Jean-Luc is actually my first Doctor,” it explains a lot really. I came to this realization watching the first few episodes of Star Trek: TNG with Daniel (I love Netflix) and the initial space jellies love story (“Encounter at Farpoint”) made me tear up and remember all the days I watched syndicated episodes through a fog of bad reception after school with my mom in the kitchen while she made dinner.
It was a very different time.
But this was *my* scifi, the scifi I grew up on and was fundamental in shaping how I saw the world. Guess what? This probably won’t surprise anyone who listens to the podcast (or anyone who knows me for that matter) but my scifi always has and most likely always will center around stories of empathy, understanding, and overcoming challenges of them with people or creatures we haven’t encountered before.
What do I mean when I say *my* scifi though, I think I’ve been questioning this more and more. How can I identify my Doctor (ideologically we’re speaking here) without identifying what it is he represents to me, as a part of a long and historied drama.
A ficitional figurehead of what my mind has come to understand as a genre which can be deeply political and emotional.
So, when I was later watching Steven Universe, and adoring how Steven questions every being he meets. He never accepts villains as evil, as unreachable, as unsaveable. They’re not villains, they’re just other “people” who he doesn’t understand. Again, empathy.
What is missing from the current era of Doctor Who and the Doctor for me? Empathy. This fundamental commitment to trying to understand someone and/or something before calling it evil or even bad. There is consideration, there is action, and then there are consequences. Jean-Luc isn’t always happy or prepared for the consequences of his actions but he rarely makes a decision without trying to understand the context; Steven may be a child but he rarely makes decisions of other beings based on anyone’s experience except his own (admittedly with mixed results), but it’s not always the case with Doctor Who.
I’ve realized though: this is my bias, this is my expectation, and it may not be everyone’s. I can criticize contemprorary Who’s intersectional issues but at the end of the day, I do want something specific from my Whovian experience. I want all the feels, I want all the connections, and most of all, I want to believe that empathy and understanding are at the heart of scientific and social advancement and discovery. Fictional or not.
Being the sort of low-class individual without an advanced degree in The Arts ™ but who occasionally reads Good Books ™ because I find them interesting (and who has some exposure to the literary academic culture through my much-better-educated wife) this piece about David Foster Wallace’s legacy* by Laura Miller speaks more to my knowledge of other pieces in outlets like The New Yorker than to my personal, lived experience. Her description of “litchat,” though, is very intimately connected with fannish culture.
Still, much of a writer’s rep emerges informally, in the conversations that writers, readers, and critics have amongst themselves. Whether another writer is spoken of respectfully, whether you get the impression that “everyone” is reading his or her new book enthusiastically, or how well people think he or she comes across in interviews—these and a dozen other imponderable factors constitute a reputation during a writer’s lifetime, particularly in the early part of a career.
This stuff—let’s call it litchat—may be ephemeral, but it absolutely shapes the formal reception of a writer’s work. If everyone in your M.F.A. workshop or the last book party you went to mentions an established author’s name with reverence, you’ll be that much more likely to lay it on thick should you ever be asked to review her new book. Or, conversely, if you decide to prove your independence of mind and go contrarian on her, you’ll be aware of the inertia of all that acclaim and feel the imperative to push back with corresponding force. Reviewers don’t like to admit that they’re influenced by such factors, but unless they live cut off from other readers, writers, and critics entirely, they can’t really help it.
Porting away from the circles of academic writing and towards something more prosaic and dirty like Doctor Who fandom, this is nothing more than our old friend Received Fan Wisdom. Approaching the show, especially the Classic Series, as a new fan is often to be indoctrinated into the overarching narratives about the show as it is to be involved in the show itself. Because every fan knows that Hartnell’s Doctor was ornery and the actor was horribly racist, that Troughton’s Doctor was always impish and fun, that Mel screeched a lot and Colin Baker was worthless except for a spiky bit at the end of The Mysterious Planet and Tom Baker was clearly The Best Evah and and and….
…and it’s all fine, really, because ultimately knowledge about a thing (even a silly British TV show) can’t really be divorced from the process of gaining that knowledge, and all the informational resources about the text (official and unofficial) provide a very useful gloss on the text itself. You probably can’t really understand K-9 without understanding Hinchcliffe and Mary Whitehouse, although there I go exposing my anti-New Criticism bias again. The commentary on the text is with any long-running media property an almost essential starting point for understanding the text itself.
However, I think much of the point of the Oi! Spaceman podcast is specifically to look at the stories without that lens as much as possible, to question the unstated assumptions of the Doctor Who fandom and effectively uncover the nasty organic growth underneath some of those rotting logs of misogyny, racism, et cetera that so plague dominant-white-male nerd culture. (While I would not place our silly podcast anywhere near in the same realm, Phil Sandifer has done enormously important strides in this over on his blog — for all of my differences of opinion with Sandifer he’s done some really phenomenal work.) Of course we do this imperfectly, partly because when we started we didn’t realize the degree to which that’s what we’ve always done in private, and partly because much of the time it’s more enjoyable for us to just sit and chat about the silliness of the plot and/or the production design. So it goes.
My personal takeaway from the “litchat” piece quoted above? That online fannish writing and Serious Literary Criticism ™ probably aren’t quite as far apart as the Official Arbiters of Literature ™ would like to pretend they are, and that while I’m sure I could speak much more eloquently and with a sharper critical edge were I to immerse myself in the literary world, even the voice of a silly low-class outsider might have something interesting to say. If you’re reading this, I hope you agree. As always, I’m open to corrections, commentary, and criticism.
* Personally, I have read a bit of the late Wallace’s work, including some of his short fiction and Infinite Jest, but my personal favorite writing of his is “Host,” his analysis of right-wing radio host John Zeigler and, by extension, the whole right-wing propaganda machine. This probably speaks to my own bias towards pieces analyzing the insanities of the American right wing.
Anita Sarkeesian has a new video up, and it is (like the others) quite good at doing exactly what it says on the label — applying a bit of basic feminist/social justice to video games: a medium that has yet to receive quite the level of critical analysis its place in the culture deserves. Watching these videos (especially the early ones) it’s amazing that this got Sarkeesian the level of vitriol and hatred it did: nowhere to be found are the kind of systemic criticisms of video game culture that would be expected from a firebreathing and card-carrying “radical feminist”; nowhere do we find even the snark of an Amanda Marcotte or a Melissa McEwan. Sarkeesian is approachable, clever, often funny, has clearly done her research, and (for the most part) is making the kinds of obvious, straightforward, “feminism 101” kinds of arguments that are simply par for the course in other media.
(An aside: so why does she get the hate she does? Partly it’s because of a “perfect storm” element that led to GamerGate last year regarding the increasingly audible female/minority voices in culture in general, and the backlash against such from the ridiculous (and ridiculously-named) “Men’s Rights Activists.” I suspect a larger issue is that video game culture –which I have a limited experience with, mostly from afar and only sporadically– is especially hidebound and reactionary to such ideas, possibly due to the average age of the modern self-described “gamer.”)
The incredibly strong reaction towards Sarkeesian actually makes it difficult to treat her work in a systematic and critical way; any criticism of her videos must almost by definition come with a heaping portion of denouncement of her haters, and the general volume of the conversation around her makes it nearly impossible to treat her work outside of it. (Sarkeesian is aware of this, no doubt, and in her videos commonly speaks to larger cultural issues that seem specifically pointed at the GamerGate crowd.) It’s not that I have any particular issue with the work in general, beyond a quibble here or there, except a desire for it to be expanded and deepened. Sarkeesian is doing the very fine work of producing a series of videos laying out in some detail the basic and uncontroversial feminist lens through which video games should be seen, and I hope she makes a hundred more videos just like the one posted above.
That said, the most obvious criticism I’ve seen of Sarkeesian’s work is exactly that: that it is simplistic, overly broad, takes material out of contest, and ultimately superficial. To which my response is pretty much: “Well, it’s an offshoot of a series called ‘Tropes Versus Women,’ right? What did you expect?”
I was first exposed to the idea of the trope through Roger Ebert’s Little Movie Glossary entries like “The Climbing Killer,” which states from his Hollywood Homicide review, “that dependable chase cliche in which the killer climbs to a high place, from which he cannot escape unless he can fly.” Ebert penned dozens if not hundreds of these little bon mots, based on the thousands of movies he watched in his lifetime, and the website TV Tropes has taken that idea and run with it, producing a highly entertaining wiki collecting many, many similar examples from all forms of media.
A trope, then, is at best a pattern seen across various works, and at worst a boring cliche. Savvy audiences, especially those goosed by conversation about tropes, see a Climbing Killer or an Amateur Sleuth or a Girl Next Door or a Magic Negro and, well, they know what to expect. They want their expectations to be tested in some way, either to be fulfilled properly, to be reversed, or in some other way acknowledged. Knowledge of genre tropes is a fine and wonderful thing, of course — no writer wants his or her work to be derivative and plodding. But since everything is a trope of one kind or another, and these tropes are specifically those things which are common across different stories/media/genres, any analysis relying primarily on tropes will be almost by definition an overly-broad, superficial one.
(This is where I make one more defense of Sarkeesian before leaving her behind for this entry — it is absolutely a valuable and perhaps essential thing for a three-video series detailing the Damsel in Distress in video games to exist. Many of the tropes Sarkeesian examines are so prevalent –and yet so damaging– that much of the value of her video series is basically just stringing together so many examples in one place to demonstrate how hollow and silly relying on these tropes really is.)
And if an over-reliance on tropes can lead to superficial analysis, it sure as hell can lead to superficial writing. One of the lasting effects of the “indie revolution” in film of the 1990s was the acknowledgement that the works themselves should be genre-savvy, and in particular many comedic works built their entire structures on acknowledging, then subverting, expected tropes. (Kevin Williamson’s Scream series is perhaps the biggest example here.) This is the birth of “meta” as a writing concept and, done cleverly, the effects can be sublime. Mass entertainment in the second decade of the twenty-first century has so thoroughly embraced the idea of self-reflexivity that it’s virtually the water we swim in today: Captain America “gets that reference” in The Avengers, video games regularly poke fun at their own limitations and conventions, comic book character Deadpool is built around the concept of making the fourth wall superfluous, and Community gave us an entire character whose existence was predicated on oversimplifying life into a series of interconnected metatextual references.
The problem with all this, as I see it in a “you kids get off my lawn” sort of way? That two decades after Scream, after even the parody series of Scary Movie has devolved into self-parody and cultural irrelevance, is that manipulation of tropes should be a starting point, not an endpoint, in any well-written media piece whose characters and events we should at all take seriously. Abed is not just a delivery system for jokes about 80s movies; his hyperfocus on these meta elements is eventually shown to be a product of deep disaffection with the world and possibly a non-neurotypical ideation. Buffy started as an idea of a reversal of the trope of the Blonde Girl in the Alley, but the series eventually spent seven years exploring the titular character and the world in which she lived. Django Unchained isn’t just a blaxploitation slavery flick, but a deeply fascinating origin story for an African-American hero defeating his chains by his own terms, with the embedded harsh criticism of the way white culture –then and now– considers the legacy of slavery.
The attentive listener of the podcast will probably expect that I’ll now move the topic once again to the oh-so-clever Steven Moffat. I suppose that’s a genre trick of my own. But this post has certainly gone on long enough already, and Moffat probably deserves a nice long analysis through the trope lens all on his own. So stay tuned for that next week.