Daniel’s TwitterMy Tweets
Shana’s TwitterMy Tweets
Speculative Fiction, Intersectional Feminism, and Dirty Jokes
Finally sitting down to do an episode that was planned months beforehand, Lee and Paul chat about John Russo’s “Midnight” (1982) & Joseph Ellison’s “Don’t Go in the House” (1979). Paul also chats a bit about his time attending the 2016 Living Dead Weekend and the people he talked to at the event, including Russo himself. This one is pretty loose and lacking fucks, as both hosts are drunk, but it’s generally a pretty fun conversation, and they do try to review the films. What more can you ask for on a free podcast? NOTHING! That’s what.
Featured Music: “Midnight” by Quintessence & “Fire” by Arthur Brown.
Sorry for the lack of content in this space. A lot of personal issues, some health-related and some not, have prevented me from having the energy to write as much as I’d like. I currently have a few posts, including the two parts of the Phil Sandifer response I promised, as well as a piece about gender essentialism and a possible piece about gun culture in the US (relating to the recent Kalamazoo shooting) on the back burner. Until then, accept this trifle as tribute.
I’m about halfway through listening to Shabcast 16 with Jack and Kevin, and am enjoying it mightily. (Listening to two smart people bash on a terrible sci-fi trilogy is always an entertaining time.) I have a lot to say about the issue of violence in media, but I at least want to get to the end of the show before I dig into that. Instead, I wanted to talk for a moment about why I’m not particularly bothered by the Mickey/Martha pairing in The End of Time, Part Two, while acknowledging the obvious #racefail readings that others, including Jack and Kevin, bring to that relationship, and acknowledging the strong possibility that the production team really did have the “put the two black characters together to wrap up the loose ends” kind of attitude towards the whole thing.
More or less, I’m not bothered by the implication of a Mickey/Martha pairing because the pairing makes a whole lot of sense. The two of them actually have a whole lot in common, aside from the obvious class differences etc. — both have not only traveled for some time with The Doctor, but after traveling worked for paramilitary organizations to defend the Earth from assault. Both characters suffered greatly during their time traveling with the Doctor (emotionally or physically), and both arguably became better, more broad-minded people during their journeys. They both have a strong line of heroism in their characters, and I’d argue that the two are the most “badass” characters in the whole of the RTD/Gardner era, at least by implication and by the time we leave their stories. If we look at it from a writer’s perspective of wanting to wrap up loose ends in an efficient manner, pairing off Mickey and Martha seems like an easy decision to make, without the racial issues ever coming into it at all.
(Of course, there’s then the criticism that it is these two characters who become the “badass hero” archetypes, rather than, say, Mickey and Donna or Martha and Rose or whatever. If there’s a racist element to having the two major black characters of the first five years of New Who both joining paramilitary organizations, it’s probably beyond the scope of both the typical criticism of the pairing (did they have to put the two black characters together?) or of this brief blog entry. Sorry.)
I suspect that some of the root cause of these kinds of representation arguments is simply that our N is incredibly small: when you’ve only got two or three major characters of some under-represented group in a series, it’s incredibly easy for problematic patterns to occur. Martha is the only black woman who is a major character in the entire series, so what happens to her suddenly has to represent not just Martha the character but Doctor Who’s Stance on Black Women. This is the major argument for aggressively increasing diversity at every opportunity; were the background of the series filled with dynamic, individual, and richly-detailed black women, Martha wouldn’t have to stand in for her gender and race nearly as much. As it is it’s hard to see how many of the problems Martha represents are blind spots of the production team, and how many are simply matters of metaphorical drift created by the small sample size.
Moffat, of course, by and large has completely solved the racial problems represented by Martha and brought on by Davies by the simple expediency of not having another PoC companion. I will be discussing the issues of racial bias in Doctor Who at a lot more length in a future blog post for sure.
I’ve been a bit cagey about this in public but I suppose it’s a good time to let the cat out of the bag: Phil Sandifer is guest-hosting on next week’s episode of Oi! Spaceman, in which we’re planning to talk about Mawdryn Undead and some other assorted topics. This is obviously something I’m excited about, as Phil is one of the brightest and most incisive thinkers out there about Doctor Who, its history, and its place in the culture, but it’s also something that I think many of our listeners have been wanting to hear for awhile. Namely: what happens when Phil, Shana, and Daniel chat about Steven Moffat and feminism?
(Or maybe I’m just fooling myself and no one is really thinking that. Although I’ve had a few listeners explicitly ask us to reach out to feminist critics who hold the Moffat era in high esteem, and there is none more prominent that I know of than Phil Sandifer.)
Since I know Phil doesn’t listen to podcasts (and has admitted he hasn’t listened to our show at all), and because we often speak about these issues on the show but rarely do anything systematic with them, I thought it would be worthwhile to put out a general statement on feminism within Doctor Who, with a focus on Steven Moffat. In Part One I’ll speak generally of what I think it means for a piece of media to be feminist and talk about some of the commonly-used yardsticks within Doctor Who fandom for judging the feminism of the show. In Part Two I’ll look specifically at the two pieces Phil wrote on his Eruditorum blog about Steven Moffat and feminism back in 2013-2014, and will probably get just a bit snarky with bits of it. And in Part Three I’ll look into the lion’s mouth and specifically get into the RTD/Moffat debate, find some faults and some successes with both, and close with a look at what I think a really robustly feminist Doctor Who would really look like.
And before anyone says anything about it, let me just say that I’m fully aware that I’m the fucking last person anyone should listen to on these subjects. As a cisgender, white, heteroflexible man born and raised in the West and with no real academic training or expertise in the social sciences or literary criticism, my opinions are more-or-less worthless. All I can say in my defense is I’ve tried to listen to those lower on the socioeconomic stratum than myself and while these arguments are my own, I believe they are largely in keeping with the perspectives of those much more knowledgable than myself. I welcome the criticism and judgments of all persons to these posts, and my most fervent wish is that someone with much more knowledge than I will prove me wrong on these matters. Until then, may I recommend Whovian Feminism for all your Doctor Who and feminism needs?
A Working Theory of Feminist Criticism
One of the frustrations of discussing (and reading popular essays about) these issues online is that feminism/sexism are so often discussed as binaries — either a particular work is “feminist” or it is “sexist” with no gradation in between. Further complicating matters, this binary is also often used as a strict marker of quality: feminist works are by-definition “good” while sexist works are “bad.” (In all honesty I think I’m sometimes guilty of having both of these unexamined assumptions myself when speaking off-the-cuff, a tendency I’m trying to wean myself of.) Of course neither is true: feminism can either be viewed as a lens through which we view texts or at the very least a multidimensional spectrum on which a text may fall, rather than a simple binary as is often implied by our language. And while I’d argue that feminist works are of greater value than non-feminist or anti-feminist works in general and generally have greater artistic merit, it’s certainly possible to find overtly feminist works that fail artistically and to find sexist works that have large amounts of merit. (For the latter, consider only Frank Miller’s Sin City comics which are by almost any measure overtly antifeminist but which are of very high artistic quality when viewed separately from those issues.)
What then, do we mean when we describe a work of art as feminist? At the risk of sounding too much like a bad high school essay, Wikipedia’s criteria for feminist literature is:
Feminist literature is fiction or nonfiction which supports the feminist goals of defining, establishing and defending equal civil, political, economic and social rights for women. It often identifies women’s roles as unequal to those of men – particularly as regards status, privilege and power – and generally portrays the consequences to women, men, families, communities and societies as undesirable.
which seems about as good a place to start as any. To extend this slightly for this discussion, I’d add that feminist media should:
1) be explicitly more feminist than the culture in which they are created and consumed. A work questioning and rejecting the sexist/patriarchal assumptions of the culture in which it is created, even to a small degree, will be often of greater worth through the feminist lens than a work which exhibits more feminist traits, but is made in a culture in which those traits are common.
2) generally reject notions of biological determinism and/or gender essentialism in its portrayal of its characters. Gender norms (i.e. blue for boys and pink for girls) should be shown a result of cultural or societal forces rather than biological realities. Where biological issues are directly at issue (i.e. larger average physical size of males), the value that cultures place on these biological factors (i.e. larger muscles are intrinsically superior to smaller ones) should be at least questioned if not outright rejected.
3.) ideally be at least aware of issues of intersectionality, such that racism/ableism/cis-sexism/amatonormativity/etc. are also considered as feminist issues, and to the widest degree possible explored in the media in question. Viewed this way, a text with reactionary racial politics is less feminist than one without, even if the standard hallmarks of feminism are present in both.
There is much more of course (and I welcome readers to submit their own ideas for extensions to the list above) but that’s a good starting place. I’m also sure there are decades of academic texts that explore all of these ideas in much more detail than I could imagine, and may in fact outright reject some or all of the above, but this is my essay and I’m positing what I think a properly feminist text should do. (One of my life goals in 2016 is to read much more feminist and media theory, and I welcome suggestions of texts in comments.)
Doctor Who, Yardsticks, Form, and Content
In practice discussions of feminist (or other social justice) values in Doctor Who often come down to either A) picking moments of interest, whether feminist or antifeminist, out of the episodes for highlight and/or discussion or B) a handful of common rule-of-thumb yardsticks, by far the most prominent being the Bechdel-Wallace Test but would also include such things as the presence of a Strong Female Character, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, general discussions of agency, male:female character ratios, etc. I think we can all agree that in general any individual measure of the feminism or sexism of a work/character/artist is insufficient and that we can be more sure of our conclusions when multiple independent lines of evidence agree with one another.
To give a non-Who example, Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood is filled to the brim with middle-aged white dudes with (as I recall) one or two speaking female roles of virtually no importance, but is also a searing indictment of patriarchal capitalist aggression, and I’d personally describe it in its own way as profoundly feminist. More in line with the main topic of this series, the most thorough examination of Doctor Who through the lens of the Bechdel-Wallace test is Simon’s over at the Incoherent, who finds that Robert Holmes is far and away the worst Doctor Who writer in those terms. This leads us inexorably to the conclusion that the writer who gave us the first episodes of Liz Shaw, Jo Grant, Sarah Jane, and Romana is also profoundly anti-feminist, which sits uneasily for me. Do we ignore the results of the Bechdel-Wallace test, or do we ignore the long list of great female roles Holmes wrote during his career? In this case either measure, taken alone, leads us to what I’d consider a false conclusion. (Shana and I discuss this issue a bit in our episode on The Power of Kroll if you’re interested.)
Paraphrasing my personal friend Jack Graham said somewhere that I can’t dig up at the moment (maybe on Twitter or Facebook or some other inconsequential place), it’s a mistake to make false equivalences in politics by assuming that the subject has form but not content. In my words, the idea that it’s equally sinful to deny the Ku Klux Klan and Black Lives Matter a forum to air their views publically is just fundamentally wrong. I’ve been mulling over this idea of form versus content for a while now, and would like to extend it to feminist/social justice critiques of media: it’s very easy to focus on the form of a text over its content, but we do so to our peril.
Let’s do an illustrative example to close out this part. Jo Grant and Amy Pond, on paper, look very similar. They’re both beautiful, strong-willed sassy young women with close emotional entaglements with their respective Doctors who stick around on the show for a long time. They both begin their stories with no experience as to the ways of the universe around them, both end up possessing an array of oddball skills and talents, and both end their runs married off to what might be seen as a Doctor surrogate figure. They also both have large fanbases obsessed with the way they look with little clothing, and both are well-known for their short skirts.
Yet to consider these two characters to be interchangeable (and I know there are fundamental differences between them that I don’t highlight above) is to deny that each character exists at a certain point in the show’s history and in the culture at large. Sexy, sassy Jo Grant is a reaction to the then-nascent sexual liberation movement and what was then called “women’s lib;” however you feel about the feminist interpretations of the wardrobe she’s given it’s fundamentally different from the context Amy Pond’s short skirts inhabit. If we focus on broad strokes (the form) we can claim a fundamental sameness, morally speaking, about the way the show’s creators and fandom treat the sexuality of these two characters. But this ignores the content of these characters’ narratives and their larger meaning, whether that intended by the creators or interpreted by the time-of-transmission audience.
I’ve referred to this elsewhere (generally on Twitter) as the miniskirt problem, and I hope no one minds if I continue to use this phrase in the following sections. Part 2, in which I discuss Phil’s feminism pieces in some depth will be out tomorrow, and Part 3 with a vision of a truly feminist Doctor Who will be out Friday.
If you’ve listened to our Episode 65, you’ve heard someone refer to our podcast as “more political” than some people would necessarily feel comfortable. At the same time, our friend Jessica from Web of Queer said we were more “educational” and she enjoyed that. You also heard my reaction; I giggled.
Hopefully, this was not seen as dismissive. I really never mean it to be but hearing people say that I’ve made them either slightly uncomfortable (but in an enjoyable way) by what I’ve had to say or that they’ve learned from it: this is what I live for.
Hello, my name is Shana, I’m a poet and recovering straight-identified Queer femme. Today, a friend of mine shared a link to pornstar, Queer icon, and sex positive activist Jiz Lee (from her bio):
In the absence of comprehensive sex education, people use porn to learn about sex — what sex looks like, who gets to have it, and what it means to be sexy. On its own, that’s fine. But a limited example of what porn is has the danger in dictating what’s ‘normal’, raising issues in our understanding of sexual health, and also our sexual psyche. Diversity in porn lets us find ourself in the erotic landscape, proving we are ALL capable and deserving of love.
– Jiz Lee
What does that have to do with Doctor Who? What does it have to do with television?
When we watch television we’re shown relationships, characters, and worlds from which we learn about life. Even eras of Doctor Who that I find incredibly problematic I can learn from; we as viewers learn about relationships even those that are fantastic and fictional. We can talk about Sarah Jane as a representation of her period of feminism. We can look at Rose as a (IMO) multi-dimensional and complicated version of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
What do we have today? What do we learn about relationships and who people are from Doctor Who. Yes, this requires us to think a little longer about our entertainment.
I was lucky, not that long ago, to take part in a learning community while in grad school. The entire point of these communities was to make the school a better place. “What does better mean?” I hear you ask; let’s start with this idea:
We are always participating in something larger than ourselves, and if we want to understand social life and what happens to people in it, we have to understand what it is that we’re participating in and how we participate in it. In other words, the key to understanding social life is neither just the forest nor just the trees. It’s the forest and the trees and how they’re related to one another.
– Allan G. Johnson [http://www.agjohnson.us/glad/arent-systems-just-people/]
Sometimes you have those ideas that just don’t leave you. Doctor Who has awakened moments in my life, deep feelings, amid laughs and criticism. The talk I got to have with Johnson is part of a conversation that was largely about (some of you will wince) patriarchal structures and how they reinforce themselves. Yes, that means that there was a portion of the “academic elite” that sat down and asked: what do we look like? How are we represented? How does that help/hurt how this university achieves its goals? Notice we’re talking goal-oriented changes. The answer, well, I’m simplifying but the answer was that we (everyone, on a daily basis) must walk the slightly less comfortable path, to face those uncomfortable moments, and recognize that we are all part of changing what is ultimately a global conversation, or narrative if you will.
Yes, we all must work to change the narrative.
Does porn make me view sex differently? Absolutely. Do I recognize it as a fiction? Absolutely. What challenges that is seeing queer porn produced by queer individuals with intent to subvert that fictional sexual narrative and display what actually makes them enjoy sex and their bodies. Lee and others like Courtney Trouble, and queer porn sites are working to use porn to promote sexual health, diversity in bodies and gender representations, and to literally take images that may bring to mind sexual violence and change them to encourage sexual empowerment.
If porn wants to change its narrative, is actively recognizing its role in perpetuating unhealthy expectations of sex and bodies, is actively reaching into educational and academic realms, if porn, a genre which can be explained away just as easily (perhaps more) as other entertainment for it’s “value” to distract and entertain, if porn can try to do this…
Is it too much to ask that a genre all of its own, Doctor Who, a show rooted in Science Fiction and history and education as represented through a television program, and that has long been a parallel marker of popular culture, relationships, respect… Is it too much to ask that Doctor Who values it’s audience as much as Jiz Lee values happy sex in porn?
Content Warning: Sexual topics, kink, kink-shaming, slavery.
Note: This post has been edited slightly for minor grammatical mistakes, and to expand slightly on what SSC/RACK imply for the overall health of the interlocking alternative lifestyle communities.
Wednesday I posted the Oi! Spaceman podcast episode dealing with our reaction to Under the Lake/Before the Flood, which was a fascinating recording for us because it really was a case of finding some of the meaning of the story as we discussed it. It might make for a slightly disorganized listen, but it was enlightening for myself and I think for my wife and co-host.
The primary way my own views on the story evolved was in the discussion of Prentiss, the Tivolian undertaker, a member of a race of happy slaves imagined as a mincing sexual submissive. I originally took the portrayal at face value, primarily there to provide exposition and provide some levity (ha ha look at the ridiculousness of masochism!), but Shana correctly pointed out that putting this character within the context of a story in which magic runes implant subconscious commands that influence the way you behave changes the meaning a bit. To wit: the Tivolian desire to be dominated, whether cultural or genetic, parallels the subconscious mind control of the technology of the Fisher King, which is after all just a way of subverting the individual’s will to inbuilt memetic propogation. This parallel makes the text much richer than it would be otherwise, and I’ll definitely be considering it in some future venue, whether on the podcast, the blog, or elsewhere.
And then of course Jack Graham had to post a wonderful piece on the way that the Tivolians as happy slaves reflect larger social consciousness about oppressed populations in fiction and in life, and I knew I had to continue the conversation. I’m really trying to not let this blog just become a “what Jack said,” but seriously, go read what Jack said.
What I want to do here is to take a look at how kink and other alternative lifestyle communities handle the questions of dominance and submission, and then ask what that understanding implies for the wider world of heirarchy, on both an individual and social level, all through the lens of a minor species in Doctor Who. And I haven’t even had my coffee yet. We’ll see how this goes.
Without getting into the details of either my personal life or the myriad ways that people agree to do naughty things with one another, it should be patently obvious to anyone reading this far that none of it happens without everyone agreeing that they want to do it; all parties must consent to whatever activity is taking place before any fun times can happen. Since there are so many people who like to do things and have things done to them, and the preferences and attitudes about those things vary so widely, pretty much whenever two or more people want to engage in anything a long, sober, and mutually respectful conversation has to take place, with any hidden assumptions laid bare and clear rules about how to further communicate personal needs during and after the encounter. (This absolute need for clear communication helps to explain why the relationships of those in these communities are often more stable than those without — once you’ve negotiated the hows, whos, and whys of suspending a partner from a chandelier or dripping hot wax, figuring out who’s going to pick up the kids from school is pretty straightforward.)
Thus the baseline, required standard for anything to happen is that magic word consent: did everyone say yes at every stage of proceedings, without withdrawal. This is the low bar of intimate relationships: no one said no. However, it is only the starting point for a pleasurable/fulfilling encounter/relationship, in much the same way that “it was forty-five minutes long and had moving pictures,” might describe a television show, but would probably be a damning indictment in a discussion of a particular episode. (Not that I’m attempting to minimize failure of consent by comparing it to bad television.) Expanding on the basics of permission, many in these communities use the mantra “safe, sane, and consensual (SSC)” to describe the basics of healthy interpersonal relationships: in addition to permission, we must ensure that the activities performed are not dangerous to those involved, and are engaged in without undue bias due to mental illness. SSC has its own issues: 1) “safe” is basically never completely achievable, and “safer” is probably preferred and 2) who’s to say that people somewhere on the sliding scale of mental illness aren’t able to engage in healthy sexual behavior? To that end, many prefer to use the standard of Risk-Aware Consensual Kink (RACK), and the various controversies surrounding the use of these terms within the various alternative lifestyle communities is far, far outside the realm of this piece.
Regardless of where on the SSC/RACK debate one lies, though, it’s clear that the community at large considers not just the basic question of consent, but is also highly invested in considering the overall health and quality of the relationships its members engage in. This is key to what follows, so it’s worth pointing out specifically.
Social Heirarchy through the Kink Perspective
What’s the takeaway for us? Well, firstly, it’s clear that those involved in the production of big-budget mainstream establishment entertainment like Doctor Who are vanilla enough not to find such portrayals as Prentiss offensive/problematic — he’s a simplistic stereotype of a kinkster, filtered through ideology and designed to be a figure of fun, and in that sense barely more nuanced than Mickey Rooney’s yellowface in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Since there’s scarcely a vision of healthy kink in mainstream media (even Secretary has its issues) it’s hard to blame the production staff for this overtly — their sin is likely ignorance, not malice.
More importantly for the political issues, discussion of the way that kink culture treats voluntary submission has strong lessons for the heirarchies in which we all live and work in the real world. An individual desiring submission is seen by mainstream culture as weak and spineless, but placed in other contexts we may see submission as noble: a person volunteering for military service in defense of their nation/people, or perhaps submitting to the authority of a religious order, or even working for a political party in furtherance of some end. In these cases, we consider the submissive act to be in some sense value-neutral; whether working within and submitting to an organization is a moral act or not very much depends on the nature, function, and morality of the organization itself. In short: submitting to goals of the organization of the Ku Klux Klan is very different than doing so for the Jesuits, neither of which is much like submitting to the will of the US Navy, the Democratic Party, or the local homeowner’s association.
Is it fair to directly compare individual sexual/relationship submission to working within an organization for a larger goal? Certainly having unguarded and honest conversation with sexual submissives reveals a wide range of feelings and reasonings for their submission, and a wide degree to which they wish to maintain autonomy — some want only to “bottom in the bedroom” while others desire to subsume their whole selves in another person (and everywhere else on that spectrum). Recurring themes in this sexual submission are the desire to quiet the outside world, to let go of control, to trust in another to provide support and comfort, even if only for a short time — this emotional need to leave the stress and planning to someone of a higher authority is very prevalent in larger-scale heirarchial structures, especially in very strict religious orders. Few of us have the skills/expertise/inclination to manage every aspect of a large organization; most of us are content to use our time and energy on a more limited skill set, subsuming ourselves into a larger whole.
Alternately, it’s also worth looking at the role of the dominant in the situation. In the alternative lifestyle context, the dominant/top may be nominally “in charge,” but this comes with a strong doctrine of responsibility for the health/safety of those submitting. Authority and responsibility go hand in hand, and examining this in the larger context of social organizations, the more people that submit to their authority, the greater the degree of responsibility to behave morally towards those submitting and to the larger world becomes. Basically, if a billion people are genuflecting towards the fucking Pope, he’d better damn well be an exemplar of a human being, personally and politically.
(And in case any person out there wants to snicker at the idea of the poor ignorant sheep submitting blindly, the primary way that most of us subsume our identity into larger organizations is through our jobs — most of us have little problem “drinking the Kool-aid” our boss feeds us and still pretend to be happy autonomous individuals thinking for ourselves. I fail to see a moral advantage in submitting to Wal-Mart’s policies in service of their desire to make an extra few cents on cutoff slacks rather than for a desire for a great orgasm, let alone a submission to an organization working towards a more socially-oriented goal.)
The Happy Slave
On our podcast episode Shana connected the memetic repeating of the beacon to the genetic/cultural programming of the Tivolians, and connected that with the inbuilt assumptions of culture vis a vis patriarchy/ingrained misogyny. By this example, the many “women against feminism” take the side of their oppressors honestly, heartily, and with full consent, but is that consent uncoerced? Obviously not, if we are to take seriously the idea that mental states can be influenced by culture, and that decisions are not made by emotionless robots built on pure logic. Ironically, the submissive woman actively choosing a literally fetishized “1950s-style” relationship with a dominant person has probably considered these options much more so than the nominally “free” vanilla woman who accepts the nature of her subjugation subconsciously — the former, being a member of an alternative subculture, has almost certainly spent much more time understanding and choosing whether to accept or reject her subconscious biases.
Looked at through the intersectional/social lens, we’ve then shown that virtually all organizations engage to some degree with the idea that individuals will subsume their identities to some degree into those organizations, and therefore have some level of responsibility for the care of those individuals, at least within the domains of the submission. Further, we’ve seen that the dominant individuals/organizations take on large levels of responsibility for the health and safety of those submitting to that authority, and on ensuring that the purposes to which those submitting have their resources placed are at least broadly within the confines of what those submitting want, both stated wants and those unstated.
“Happy slaves” come about, then, in one of two ways: 1) biases are unexamined and the dominant individual/organization takes advantage of submissive individuals without uncoerced consent or 2) biases are examined, and the person submitting does so with a rational or emotional cost/benefit to themselves and the world around them in mind. Obviously this is a spectrum, and most relationships, either of the individual or the organizational level, will find themselves somewhere in between. The happy slave trope as shown in Under the Lake/Before the Flood pretends that such examination of bias and uncoerced consent simply isn’t necessary for some, through either genetic or cultural reasons, and argues that the oppression/subjugation of certain people (wink, wink) is reasonable, and possibly even commendable.
Can we reject outright any idea of an individual submitting to another, or to an organization? Of course not — on such relationships any society is built. But in order to understand these relationships on an ethical level, we must consider the biases (stated and unstated) in all parties to the relationship, and coercion, whether physical, mental, emotional, or other, must be accounted for before the relationship me be condoned. To put it bluntly: choice is a necessary component of liberation, but it is not sufficient for liberation.
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.