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Hamlet’s Father: If You Didn’t Think Orson Scott Card Was Gay Before…

In Uncategorized on September 13, 2011 by knightofsummer

Orson Scott Card has caught some flack over at RainTaxi (http://www.raintaxi.com/online/2011summer/card.shtml) for a story he wrote retelling Hamlet. And by “retelling” I mean “the main character is named Hamlet and his dad appears to him as a ghost”. It ought to come with a disclaimer, “any resemblance to any work of Shakespeare is purely coincidental.” Anyway, I read the version of this story published years ago in a 4-story anthology and decided to write up my observations. I did so legally, but the author received no royalties and no library system shows any interest in the books. I won’t give any money to someone who’s going to use it to keep my friends’ marriage from being recognized by the government.

Anyway, on to the story:

First of all, it’s not particularly well-written. The pacing is all over the place. He tries to imitate Shakespearian banter, but it mostly just sounds stilted. There’s a lot of 60′s comic book-style explication. Hamlet has a small piece of the sibling-of-an-abused-child thing going on, but it’s so one-dimensional and spelled out in excruciating detail over and over as to be uninteresting. The whole thing turns into a morality tale about how put-upon Good people are by the Evil world. Well, actually, mostly it’s a story about how hard it is for a Good Christian Man to convince himself that he’s straight when he really wants to jump his teenage friends, but to do that well would require a level of insight that is lacking. Also better prose.

It isn’t a straight-forward anti-gay rant. The homophobia is secondary, though it is explicitly stated that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are turned gay by being molested and Laertes is turned asexual (can’t forget that asexuality is also an unnatural abomination now can we? *sigh*). Hamlet’s dad isn’t exclusively a pedophile; he also has sex with teenage boys, and unlike most real-life child abusers he is portrayed as being attracted to their looks rather than the power he holds over them (nearly every speaking character is obsessed with physical appearance in this story). He is shown to be simply a monster with no redeeming characteristics; he is petty, rude, bitter, a terrible king and a child molester. There is no reason for Hamlet to kill for him except that Hamlet is an asshole… I mean, a good Christian who obeys his father. (Note: the Christianity referenced in this story is clearly Mormonism.)
Hamlet’s mother is an enabler, but there’s a lot of apologetic thrown in to try to excuse her role: she had No Idea that when he went off with little boys in the woods it was to rape them! Even if she had caught him with their own son as an infant and didn’t tell anyone! She wanted to kill herself when she found out! This part at least was realistic; it’s all the excuses I’ve heard in real life from the wives of child molesters. In the end (spoiler!) she goes to heaven. It’s a bitter pill to swallow after how she spent most of the story protecting the guy who is being portrayed as pure evil; apparently the only thing that mattered was that she saved her own son, not how many other people’s children she allowed to be molested.

The original question of adultery in the play is swept aside entirely, with Hamlet saying he doesn’t care. It is clear the only reason it came up at all was because Card was rewriting Hamlet and had to explain why he was ignoring the original source material entirely. This fits with having swapped the original Episcopalian religious framework for LDS; the original motivation for murder simply wouldn’t make any sense.

This brings us, at last, to Hamlet himself. He goes on at length about how “beautiful” his male “Companions” are, how “Strong, vigorous, lovely of face”. He’s watching them all swim at the time, and although Card doesn’t mention their state of dress, given the time period my presumption would be that he’s staring at a bunch of naked men while admiring their beauty. After returning from college Hamlet tosses in a random misogynistic speech about how women are all money-grubbing, conniving whores attempting to entrap men, and another about how women are like pudding: they look appetizing as long as you are hungry, but once you are full the dregs look disgusting and you can’t wait for them to be taken away. He has no empathy for women, but plenty for the men around him. It is pretty clear that he’s not straight, but he never acts on, or even contemplates acting on, his homoerotic desires: he appears as oblivious to his blatant and explicitly-stated interest as the writer appears. I mean, I don’t know how you write a character *this* gay without being aware of it, but Card appears to have managed it.
Further evidence can be found in his contemplation of the still totally personality-less Ophelia (she gets one quote in the whole story: “Your Highness!”. Hamlet describes her having said other things, but she has no voice of her own.) When he fantasizes about the life he might have had with Ophelia he doesn’t fantasize about her, or making love to her, or even getting to know her, but rather about getting her pregnant and raising multiple children together.

Basically, Hamlet is clearly a gay man who can’t reconcile that with his faith and so sublimates it entirely in an attempt to be the man society tells him to be. This reads an awful lot like Angels In America 0.5: Before They Leave Salt Lake (right down to the awkward, stilted dialog ;-)) The only thing I can imagine is that Card considers himself to be a straight man and portrayed his own internal life, and thus he believes that this is what straight men think about when they look at their bathing friends.

Perhaps that is the real tragedy: this tale of the emotionally-abused gay boy surrounded by those who lived through intense sexual hell at the hands of his father could be an interesting story if I thought Card was aware he was writing it (and the prose were better). Instead, the author unfortunately glorifies Hamlet, claiming his lack of self-awareness, his misogyny, his desperate need for a good therapist, as strengths and evidence of religious virtue. Hamlet here is a tragic figure, but not in the way the author seems to think. The tragedy is that he can’t see past his presuppositions of what a “proper”, “Christian” life would look like long enough to even understand himself, much less find the committed family relationship he desires with someone whom he is also attracted too.

I believe in this case the transformative work tells us more about the writer than it does about the source material. Orson Scott Card has said he writes mostly from his own life; I hope he can someday realize that gayness has nothing to do with the horrendous sexual abuse such as this, and that just because a gay man is one of the one-in-six men who are sexually abused as children doesn’t make their gay-ness the result of that sexual abuse. Hamlet’s desire for his Companions is natural and beautiful, and that if the only reason Hamlet wants to marry Ophelia is because he wants children and the facade of a “righteous Christian life”, perhaps he should be honest with her and himself instead. If they both decide to live with that anyway, I will not judge them unless they attempt to force others to make the same decision they did (by, say, joining a hate group like NOM or threatening violent overthrow of the government if it stops discriminating against families that look different than their own. Just sayin’.) A committed family life is not only possible as a gay man or women, it can be a glorious celebration that teaches the next generation the insight and self-awareness that his hero here so sorely lacks.

Also, dude, that misogyny is not okay.

ADDENDUM:
Orson Scott Card has responded, disingenuously saying:
“But the lie is this, that “the focus is primarily on linking homosexuality with … pedophilia.” The focus isn’t primarily on this because there is no link whatsoever between homosexuality and pedophilia in this book. Hamlet’s father, in the book, is a pedophile, period.”

While some reviews have called Hamlet’s father “gay” he is right; they are absolutely incorrect. However, Card shows the primary terrible effect of child abuse being to turn the boys who have been abused gay. In fact, Horatio says this explicitly. Thus it is simply a lie for him to claim that there is “no link whatsoever between homosexuality and pedophilia” in this story, especially when one of the boys who has been turned gay by being molested goes on to molest a young boy himself. Horatio is portrayed as both gay and a pedophile, even though Hamlet’s father isn’t.

Also, I would argue that Hamlet’s own obvious homosexuality ties homosexuality to pedophilia through genetic inheritance. However, I’m reluctant to hold him responsible for this as Card goes on to say of the story, “…Hamlet’s Father, since it contained no homosexual characters…” I’m assuming he’s in denial of just how parade-ready, Bette-Midler-loving, mooncalf-head-over-heels-for-Horatio, disgusted-by-women gay Hamlet appears in his story. Hint: heterosexual men don’t hate sex with all women, or generalize women to one huge, disgusting group, tolerable (not desired, mind you, merely tolerable) only if they will bear your children.

In other words, if there was any doubt previously that this particular member of the National Organization for Marriage was a self-loathing homosexual, I find this story has put it to rest.

ADDENDUM, THE SECOND:
Okay, so I apparently missed the article where Card said:


Marrying Is Hard to Do.

Men and women, from childhood on, have very different biological and social imperatives. They are naturally disposed to different reproductive strategies; men are (on average) larger and stronger; the relative levels of various hormones, the difference in the rate of maturity, and many other factors make it far, far easier for women to get along with other women and men to get along with men.

Men, after all, know what men like far better than women do; women know how women think and feel far better than men do. But a man and a woman come together as strangers and their natural impulses remain at odds throughout their lives, requiring constant compromise, suppression of natural desires, and an unending effort to learn how to get through the intersexual swamp.

In other words, there was never any doubt. I wish this was the sort of thing that got talked about regularly, instead of dismissed as a Leftwing Conspiracy. No, Card, we don’t hate you; we wish you had let yourself be happy instead of forcing yourself into a straight relationship and then demanding everyone else be similarly forced. Evolutionary Biology, even as crank and 1950s a science as it is, suggests that homosexual members of society are evolutionarily advantageous. There was never any reason you had to sleep with a woman if you didn’t want to, and there is certainly no excuse for you attempting to force other gay men to sleep with women. Even Ender deserved better than that.

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If you police nerdy interests, you’re participating in the patriarchy

In Uncategorized on September 5, 2011 by knightofsummer

Questions of nerd policing are questions of gender, capitalism and patriarchy.

Patriarchy is the system that values masculine traits over female traits in order to ensure paternity and orderly inheritance. It consists of carrots and sticks: if people conform to the stereotypical expectations of patriarchy they are rewarded, if they deviate from them then are punished. This is true for everyone, whether they have the opportunity to change their deviations or not. There is literature out there about how this affects both women and men; today I will be focusing for a little while on men.

The expectations placed on men are directly antithetical to much of nerd culture. Men are expected to find a wife based on her physical beauty and prioritize her over everything but financial success, whereas due to low numbers nerds have often prioritized long-distance interactions with people they may have never met. Men are supposed to be physically fit, healthy and prepared to participate in violence, which may be impossible for some people and unimportant to others. Men are suppose to prioritize and desire sexual congress with women over all other interests, regardless of sexual orientation or asexuality. They are supposed to participate in complex courtship rituals rather than speak plainly, openly and honestly about their desires. They are required to be afraid of and ashamed of some of the things they are required to be. Most of all if any of the conflict inherent in fulfilling all these requirements and still being an empathetic person bothers him, a man is still not supposed to have or express emotions other than anger. Even anger, though, isn’t safe, especially if targeted against other violence-ready men, which leaves misogyny as the only outlet for frustrations at living in a misogynistic world.

The cognitive dissonance inherent in modern masculinity: it is great. And I haven’t even touched intersectionality here, or cultural specificity and switching. Still, the punishment for failure includes becoming classified as “not man enough”, which makes one a socially-sanctioned target for the violent displays of masculinity by other men. While much of the outright violent dynamics resolve themselves after college, social ostracism is still a powerful and punitive force.

Why does being a geek conflict with these requirements anyway? What is the cardinal sin of the geeky? I believe it is simple, “we care too much.”

In our society the word “care” is generally considered a feminine trait. It also carries negative connotations in nearly any context other than childrearing. It suggests that someone prioritizes something (anything, really) over social conformation and upholding the status quo. While this is a double-bind for mothers (citation: ), it is flat out disparaged when expressed by anyone else. I propose that the defining characteristic of nerds is a feminine trait with negative connotations that gets in the way of a homogenous society.

The stereotype of a nerd is two parts social awkwardness and one part femininity. Thus, in order to be sufficiently manly as to escape punishment, geeky men must balance out any nerdy traits they have with otherwise conforming, and sometimes hyper-conforming, to the patriarchal expectations. Now that some nerdy pursuits have become highly profitable this is easier than it used to be: financial success, in a capitalist system, may be sufficient evidence of masculinity all on its own. But the influence of fear-based assertions of masculinity can still be found everywhere.

Because, unfortunately, to redeem itself, nerdy culture has too often taken the patriarchy-upholding tact of asserting that the things nerds do are manly. Video games aren’t childish, they are manly! We rehearse war and disparage women! Roleplaying isn’t childish or feminine! We rehearse war and disparage women! Fantasy isn’t childish or feminine! … you get the idea. This is too bad, because to make each of these things manly is to inherently, artificially limit what they are allowed to be and erases huge swaths of what they already are. When Wil Wheton stands up at PAX and says “the nerds have won!” I can’t help but think, “…by becoming everything we were originally in opposition to.”

One of the many things erased and ignored by a masculinized nerd-culture is the huge number of children and women who are, and always have been, members of it. So far, I haven’t talked about either women or children. It’s not because these groups aren’t important, but because patriarchy hasn’t invested them with the power to redefine whole hobbies and even industries in order to exclude people. They have agency, and their actions can help uphold or undermine the patriarchy, but ultimately any rejection of patriarchy has include men who rebel against it instead of simply stretching definitions by excluding women from previously-feminine pursuits or children from activities considered previously acceptable for children. By defining themselves in opposition to real people, geeky men contribute to systematic oppression.

However, when non-geeky people define themselves in opposition to geeks, they are also contributing to oppression. Even if it is oppression of a predominantly otherwise-privileged group, that doesn’t excuse it. Pretending that it’s okay to disparage nerds because they are all white, cis, middle class, well-educated, temporarily able bodied men ignores the real harm that such attacks do to those people, much less to all the nerds who don’t fit those categories, and to everyone else who is harmed by the on going system of patriarchal gender oppression. The image of nerds as all being otherwise-privileged is just wrong.

Geek feminism is but one of many feminism and related movements, but it is one that is desperately needed by geeks of all genders.

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Why people get offended by other people being offended

In Uncategorized on March 24, 2011 by knightofsummer

I did want to address “When we can’t joke about awful shit, the awful shit has won.” Because when other people can’t joke about awful shit that happened to other people, I don’t think the awful shit has won, I think those people have had their experiences validated by other people who didn’t share those experiences. And it bothers me that we’d have to be willing to ignore segments of the population lest we be crushed by evil censorship or something.

The jokes I make about child abuse? Well, we talk about how all our mothers should get together for a dysfunctional tea party. But it is generally mocking our own, personal tormentors, as a way to take power back, not mocking other people’s experiences or imagining ourselves as those abusers. Or, as my basic sum-up of jokes I find funny vs jokes I find offensive, “Speak truth to power, not powerlessness.” Jokes that lead people to identify with the victims of violence instead of the perpetrators are far more unsettling and provocative than jokes that support the status quo anyway.

I worry that the impulses against letting people be “offended” are similar to the impulse to ignore people who are “angry” and only listen to people who present “well-reasoned” arguments. To me “offended” is a genuine, hurt emotion: it means “I feel like you don’t imagine me as part of your audience, or else you wouldn’t have said that.” It is the erasure you talked about somewhere below. I believe the reason society mocks “offense” is that people find it ridiculous that those people would assume that people should take them into account as part of the audience.

That is, the fundamental break is between people who believe we should all aspire to at least our sub-cultural norms and people who believe that even people who live dead center in the cultural norms need to be aware of and respect those who differ from those norms. Which is awfully inconvenient for people near the norms, and can be directly threatening. They’ve probably given up a lot in order to conform to “normal”, so they expect other people to do whatever it takes to get there, ignoring the ways in which it may well be impossible. If it is okay to be a woman, for example, why were men bullied as boys for being feminine? If it is okay to be poor, why did the middle-class fight so hard for their jobs? If it is okay to be fat, why did they spend so much time unhappy and hungry?

If anyone fails to become 100% the default human being, they need to hide that in shame and be willing to laugh at it along with the people who aren’t that thing. If we bring up that the world is infinitely more diverse than the default human being, clearly you are doing it just to inconvenience the actual “normal” people.

Except that no one thinks about it in explicit terms like that, because privilege lets them not. Instead, they just know that when someone does get offended, it pisses them off, so clearly the problem is people getting offended.

The thing that makes me the most disappointed is that if we could just convince everyone to express their authentic feelings of alienation and then listening to everyone else’s and find their common ground, the world would be a better place. There is a reason that the highest rate of suicide in the US belongs to White men, after all. None of these struggles are actually unique. Everyone needs and deserves human connection.

TL;DR: I think “offense” is real and it is something to avoid, but like “feminism” it has become a dirty word because actually dealing with it is inconvenient.

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Casual Sexism and Hedgefundguy

In Uncategorized on March 14, 2011 by knightofsummer

Today, I came across a clear example of casual sexism and why it matters. Too often people either say, “causal sexism doesn’t exist” or if it is documented, “why are you paying that much attention to something someone said in passing?” Here I will attempt to deconstruct a brief, casual comment and demonstrate how it limits the population who can comfortably participate in online discourse.

I encountered these comments on the Economist’s Free Exchange blog. Someone pointed out that in February employment increased for all men except those ages 20-24, while decreasing for women ages 20-54 [N.B. which is easily explained when you consider that most of the layoffs were government employees, and the areas of government that are male-dominated, like police and firefighters, are less likely to be cut than those that are female-dominated, like teaching and administrative work. Androcentricism definitely plays a part in this, and our economy is suffering the consequences of the education cuts in the 70's, but that is a topic for another post.] Anyway, these were the comments that followed:

Doug Pascover wrote:
Hedgie, having been a man aged 20-24 at one point, I’m pretty sure we’re better off without them.

hedgefundguy wrote:
Doug,
I’m with you.
That leaves more 20-24 women for us old guys who have jobs and can afford to be a sugar-daddie.

The first comment is incredibly age-ist. That is, it assumes that it is totally okay for young men to suffer because he isn’t proud of who he was when he was 20. Does he remember how hard it was to live in a world where no one took you seriously, where other people treated him the way he now treats young people who are struggling, out of work, betrayed by a society that taught them entitlement instead of marketable skills? Apparently not. He is also being a terrible economist here; facing bad job prospects at the start of their career will hurt these people’s economic productivity for the rest of their life and create a drag on the economy for years to come. The comment is casually sexist, in that it implies the problem is specific to young men and that they deserve it in part because of their gender. He is speaking from personal experience it is less clearly sexist than it would otherwise be. However, it does play in to the social construction of young men as not being responsible for their actions because they are controlled by some form of biological imperatives, so in that way it clearly relies on sexism in order to be interpreted as a joke and not a call for mass imprisonment or genocide. It completely ignores the existence of women, or the fact that the losses among women over-all were much larger than men; is there something about those women that justifies that as well?

Hedgefundguy, on the other hand, takes this casual sexism to an explicit, misogynistic and threatening place. I am sure he thought he was just making a joke. I am also sure he will be incredibly offended that any woman would interpret the comment the way I am about to interpret it. That just means that he would be offended if his audience isn’t made up of people who support older men’s “rights” to feel entitled to the bodies of women as objects of sexual satisfaction, which means that he is actually going to be offended that women read his comments at all.
[N.B. Not that he’d put it that way. Women, I am sure, are welcome to read his comments as long as they aren’t any different from men and he isn’t asked to keep them in mind as members of his potential audience. Assimilation into masculinity or gender equality as long as it doesn't ask anything of men seems to be the current accepted norm.] If he didn’t assume the things I am about to suggest he assumes, the joke wouldn’t be funny, it would be nonsensical. It would definitely not be an aside between two men that strengthened their social bonds of camaraderie at young women’s expense.

Now that I’ve gotten the preemptive defense to “how dare you be offended!?!” out of the way, I will explain why this casual “joke” is really a social cue that I am a rape-able, dehumanized object who should not be considered a valid member of the discussion.

The idea of “sugar-daddy” is simple: it is long-term sex work whereby a woman sleeps with an economically-privileged man in exchange for payment, normally in the form of direct support (which leaves him with control over her life; it is closer to indentured servitude than fair employment.) There is nothing wrong with sex work; we are economists after all and if men value sex more than women a capitalist market-clearing solution will probably involve money. However, clearly in a fully market-clearing situation some men would also be paid, there would be no assumptions as to whether this job was preferential to others and it definitely wouldn’t involve coercive economic structures like the “sugar-daddy” role. So essentially he is claiming that the role to which all 20-24 year old women aspire is sexual indenturature.

Second, by placing 20-24 year old men in competition with older men for women, he is reproducing the on-going chauvinistic trope of women as objects to be won or acquired, rather than independent humans who fulfill their own needs through relationships with fellow humans, just like men do. He has erased not only their humanity, but also anything other than their sexuality. He doesn’t comment on how more of them now have jobs and such could, and are, supporting men they have relationships with. He ignores that more of them are remaining single, finishing school and embarking on productive careers or driving increases in productivity and innovation, and how many are remaining single because the marginal cost of a relationship, including having people assume you are an indentured sexual servant, does not exceed the marginal benefit. A majority of high-tech start-ups are now founded by women (though only X% of those that get outside funding, because sexism still exists even when women take Say’s advice and going around established economic institutions when the structural barriers lead to inefficiency.) But the important thing isn’t any of that, it’s how many young women will have sex with hedgefundguy in exchange for money.

In fact, if he wanted to increase the number of young women who were willing to have sex with him, he would have better luck addressing the social stigma of relationships between younger women and older men, by, for example, socially censuring older men who engage in “sugar-daddy” relationships for their exploitation. If nothing else, the objectification and stigma thus acquired undoubtedly raises the price of such relationships, as well as crowding out relationships that wouldn’t require economic payment.

So, this comment is creepy and sexist and lacks both empathy and insight with half of humanity, but how does it make my blood run cold?
First, because I am a participant in The Economist’s comment section, but this commenter has just indicated to me that he doesn’t think I have anything of value to offer unless I was collocated with him and willing to engage in sexual acts. It tells me that my clearly-female user name will probably lead him to ignore my comments, which frustrates me because he is very active and I frequently find his grasp of fundamental economic assumptions to be lacking. [N.B. That sort of entitled disregard for other perspectives could be why his grasp of fundamental economic assumptions are lacking, of course. Privileged wrongness is self-perpetuating.] It tells me that if he knew I was a 24-year-old women, he would value me only for the potential for me to sexually satisfy straight men and not my other contributions to the economy, society or academic thought.
To make the second point, I will use that word that everyone, especially Penny Arcade, hates: rape culture. The dehumanization involved in objectifying women is what makes rape possible, the same way the dehumanization of enemy populations in times of war makes war crimes possible (See http://www.psychwiki.com/wiki/221536129-Moral_disengagement_and_Dehumanization for an explanations of the dynamics at work.) I am not for one minute calling hedgefundguy a rapist, nor am I equating sex work to rape (we are economists; we should know the difference between the exploitation of labor made possible by a lack of economic freedom and slavery by force and violence.) You do not have to support rape in order to create a climate that emboldens rapists and allows them to escape punishment on a regular basis (studies show between 6% and 13% of men are unconvicted rapists.) Simply supporting the objectification and dehumanization of women is sufficient to encourage violence against them (as well as violence against any men who are perceived to be insufficiently manly.)
When I am in a space, including a comments section, and someone says something, anything, that implies women are only valuable based on their ability to sexually satisfy straight men and no one else contradicts them, I know I am in a place where if a man raped a woman, the satisfaction he got from sexually-exploitative domination would possibly be considered more valuable than her freedom, her safety, her emotional health, her rights or even her economic contributions (PTSD interferes with employment, and is a drag on GDP.) When women are considered to be primarily valuable for pleasing straight men, they are expected to tolerate terrible treatment from men, especially men who feel entitled to their bodies because they have “paid” for them. This spectrum starts with “boys will be boys” sentements and refusing to hold men responsible for their actions because their behavior is clearly biologically determined, as Doug did, and extends to women who are harassed, or even raped, by powerful men being expected to be grateful for their attentions.
[N.B. I would expect libertarians to care more about the impositions straight men's sexuality makes on women, since just being wolf-whistled at is a non-consensual interaction that infringes on a woman's freedom, but since most libertarians are straight men it doesn't seem to occur to them how hypocritical it is to place the obligation for their sexual satisfaction on other people.]

So, when these specific comments went up on an economics blog and no one objected, suddenly that blog became a place where I know that rape is likely to be given tacit approval. When I read that comment, my blood chilled and I am no longer thinking about supply and demand and declining marginal value and comparative advantage; I am thinking about my personal safety. I am terrified, because he just dehumanized me in a society where dehumanization of people like me frequently does result in violence.
I do not expect anyone who has not had older men feel entitled to their body to have that same reaction to the comment, and I am sure some people who have still see the comment as a reflection of an acceptable status quo and thus funny. I don’t know if men who have had older men feel entitled to their bodies would react to this specific comment, but they might. Men might also react who had watched women they cared about face older men who felt entitled to their bodies, whether it was their mother, sister, partners, daughters or friends. In general, I would expect it alienates anyone who empathizes with women instead of dehumanizing them and recognize this comment as a real thing that happens regularly and routinely. Because of this, if comments like this are entertained the population of participating members will eventually consist only of people who consider women to be sexual objects and fail to empathize with them.
This comment was one guy saying to another guy, “it’s a good thing we’re the people who matter, isn’t it? Not like all those other people.” I hope he is simply willfully ignoring the fact that those other people read the blog too (and some might even usually agree with him). The alternative is that he is intentionally attempting to alienate them and convince them to leave, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and say he’s just expressing over-privileged status based on the domination and humiliation of his fellow human beings.

I could add my personal experiences with older men with money feeling entitled to my body or the various ways they have attempted to, and succeeded in gaining access to it, but it is not necessary to make the point because it’s not just about me. It fact, my objections are perhaps least about me, because I’m unlikely to stop reading this blog of a paper I’ve read for 11 years just because it tolerated some threatening misogyny. It is about all the other women, and all the other young men who read Dave’s comment, and then leave instead of staying around to comment. Personally, I am far more interested in what they have to say than what Hedgefundguy and Dave have to say. They are the people who are likely to produce the next wave of innovation in the field (I am assuming that Dave and Hedgefundguy are over 35). These young men and women will further not just the profession, but the economy itself (though possibly not until they wrestle it from the cold, dead hands of prior generations.) They may read this comment, have the same reaction I had and never come back. We will neither get their insight, nor will they have the opportunity to learn from the knowledge of those prior generations. That is why what Hedgefundguy said is unacceptable and should not be countenanced by a community that claims to value people for their intellectual contributions. We should not be basing whether or not someone belongs in this community on the basis of whether or not they desire to hire a young woman to sexually satisfy them (though that also wouldn’t exclude all women ages 20-24), or whether they are willing to tolerate old men using their economic and socially-granted power to manipulate young women into bed with them. We should be basing membership on the quality of economic theory and analysis commenters bring to the table.

I know that many people will believe these 2000+ words are excessive time and attention to spend on one comment. My response is two-fold:
First, these comments is reflective of assumptions that hedgefundguy and Doug make about the world, which I believe to not only be wrong but actively harmful. I am not commenting on those three sentences; I am commenting on the world view that causes them to be funny. If you can admit I have a point, but are unwilling to accept that these three sentences matter that much, please just keep this in mind going forward and when you next hear a gender-based joke, think back to this post. I promise you, this won’t be the last one you encounter if your selective attention is looking for them.
Second, if I didn’t consider the potential marginal benefit (an eventual shift away from tolerating sexism in the comment sections of economics blogs) worth the time I’ve spent on this, axiomatically I wouldn’t have written this post.

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White Knights and the Stages of Privileged Feminism

In Uncategorized on February 23, 2011 by knightofsummer

A friend expressed hesitiation about pointing out that an ally in a women-centric space was interrupting and derailing women because he didn’t want to White Knight.  So I started thinking about what White Knighting is, and at what point people do it or don’t do it, and at what point it is Oppressive Of Women and at what point is not doing An Asshole Thing To Do.

So, first, why never speaking up when a man is behaving in some way squigs you out is not the answer:
If you don’t speak up, regardless of your intentions, it means that you have just made it the responsibility of women to address all sexist behavior ever.  That is totally unfair, and sexist.  It also implicitly perpetuates the perception that sexism is only women’s problem and fixing it is women’s responsibility. So don’t do that.

Second, the key factor in how I perceive men’s actions is simple:
Is it about the woman being addressed, or is it about the guy’s behavior?  Consider this comic: http://chainsawsuit.com/2008/05/09/strip-363/ My problem is not that he said “there is something wrong with implying any woman on the channel wants to cyber”.  My problem is that he found it an inappropriate thing to do to a lady and that he apparently only cares because there is a woman involved.  It shouldn’t matter if there was no woman on the channel at all, and it shouldn’t be motivated by a desire to protect women, it should be motivated by the desire to not have men around who think women are just sexual objects.  It is about what that dude did.  Imagine a guy said, “I saw Erin Brokovitch last night” and some other guy said “A/S/L?”  Still sexist, totally reasonable to call out because you know what? Women’s sole purpose in life isn’t to satisfy straight men’s sexual desires and men who believe that it is are unpleasant to have in society.  They need to know that their community thinks they are wrong, rejects their point of view and finds their behavior unacceptable.  If they behave that way, they will be ostracized, not rewarded with a greater sense of camaraderie as the often are now. (Motivation To Speak Up: if you don’t, they assume you totally agree.)

Third, just because you get push back doesn’t mean you were actually white knighting, even if that push back comes from a woman (though you should take such criticisms seriously and examine your own actions):
You will get push back for speaking out against sexism.  This includes from women, especially in hyper-masculine spaces where chances are they have learned that if they just do their best to tune out the sexism they can get back to being One Of The Guys soon enough.  Some women believe they are geeks first and women second, and so will push back against anything they see as an attempt to change geek culture.  Remember, sexism is about perceived & performed masculinity and femininity, not about “men” and “women”, even though there is correlation between the two.
This is when having it be about the guys’ behavior and not the women is important; if she complains you should be able to reply, “this isn’t about you, it is about how he behaved.  Even if there wasn’t a woman around, what he said would have been unacceptable.” (Side note: Speak out when there aren’t women around.  Side note 2: Note that this is very different than saying, “it’s not about you, it’s about the principle of the thing.” The principle in question might still be chauvinism.  Speaking out is about changing social norms, not about principled stands; it should be practical and pragmatic, with a clear aim in mind.  If you are attempting to take principled stands without aiming to change behaviors, you may be grandstanding, white knighting or making the problem worse.)

Fourth:
You may also get cookies that a woman saying the same thing wouldn’t get, and feel guilty for this and assume that means you were white knighting.  You need to know, in your heart, that you aren’t speaking out to try to get cookies, and be totally okay if they don’t arrive.  Then you need to gracefully accept the feedback you get.  Most men don’t notice sexism, while most women do (the percentages in open source, for example, are 80%/20% for both groups).  When a man says “wow, that right there, that’s sexist” it is validating an experience that 80% of women have that 80% of men will swear up, down and sideways don’t exist.  It is like finally meeting someone else who notices the Boss is walking around naked all the time.  Rejecting their gratitude by saying, “but everyone should know that” diminishes their experience of being ignored, dismissed and patronized; Don’t Do It.
At the same time, if still-sexist folks give you cookies, feel free to tell them to get off their ass and do the work.  Also point out that many women have been articulating these problems for hundreds of years, and if you have time cite your sources or suggest further reading.  Introducing sexists to the idea that women have important and valuable insights is important.  That does not, however, mean you are not allowed to talk, it just means that you should talk proportionally and listen more (just like everyone else).

Anyway, now that all that is out of the way, the four stages of privileged people without direct, noted experience of sexism coming to a certain kind of Feminism (if you are pissed off because you think this doesn’t apply to you, check the caveats):

1. Introduction
Phase 1 is all about the “what”.
People who first encounter feminism tend to keep doing what they were doing, only For Feminism!  It’s still not about men’s behavior, it’s about women as objects, just now to be protected instead of consumed.  The reason is that most people start by noticing  “bad things happen to women!”  In exactly that passive voice.
The first complication is that usually this is accompanied by, “but my life isn’t awesome either!”  They may be resentful, and some people abandon feminism all together at this stage because it doesn’t include their experience.  The entire Pick Up Artist community is based on people who failed out of stage 1.
Those who continue on usually read and internalize something about derailing and silencing, and just stop talking about their own experiences for a while.  The alternative is where the phrase “What About The Menz!?!” comes from, where they try to relate everything they are hearing back to their own experience but the lack the broader context to actually understand it (especially since, remember, at this point “bad things happen to women” in the passive voice, and feminism is all about women.)  Normally people asking “What About The Menz?” are actually asking “What About ME!?!!”, but haven’t been exposed to the language of self-reflection, lived experience or respectful sharing, and so end up coming across as self-centered and oblivious [N.B. figuring out how one's own experience fits into a framework of gendered oppression is part of our personal work and while other people can help, the best people to ask are people like yourself who are further along in their journey and not people completely unlike yourself who might well have no idea what men's experiences of sexism are, if only because men keep expecting women to figure that shit out for them.  Also, expecting women to walk you through your task is part of the sexist dynamic that expects women to caretake for men and lead them into fulfilled lives, rather than making men responsible for their own internal happiness.  Don't Do It.]
Any way, at this point attempts to call people out are likely to be of the form “you are doing bad things to women! Do you not know bad things happen to women!?!”  This is reasonably called “white knighting”, even when done with the best of intentions.  Many sexists are oblivious to the context of their behavior, but the right answer is not to make their problem about women, and expecially not to make the problem about this one specific woman as a representative for All Women Everywhere.  Also, simply saying “what” without having a “why” to back it up doesn’t work; try watching: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJG698U2Mvo  People in phase 1 don’t yet understand the context themselves yet, they probably don’t have experience with all the techniques listed at http:///www.derailingfordummies.com, and chances are they are just going to become frustrated or feel embarrassed or give into social pressure and still think that real sexism is bad, but clearly this isn’t real sexism.   People in phase 1 don’t understand why the problem isn’t simple to solve, or why it is necessary for them to not be the center of every discussion.
2.  Enough to Mansplain
Phase 2 is all about “how”.
This is when people think about how they came to realize that bad things happen to women because they are women and since it was probably something some woman did that made them realize that, they decide that if more women would just do X, Y or Z, feminism wouldn’t have such a bad rap and everyone would understand that bad things happen to women because they are women and then they wouldn’t do that anymore!
They might have gotten out of the passive tense by now, but it will be in the form of “$LABEL do bad things to women” where $LABEL means they don’t have to think it is them and often times it is so generalized as to not actually mean anyone.  It is also the point where other isms come through: “Islamic men”. “poor men”, “Black men”, but it always boils down to “other people” do bad things to women because they are women.  Not the person in phase 2, though.  They are Enlightened.  The scream “goddess” when they reach that special place (how common is this? Try bringing it up at a feminist group sometime and listen to the laughter.)  They will say things like, “I bet feminism would do great if it just changed its name”, completely ignoring the huge social backlash of privilege and power feminism has faced even for the thousands of years before it was called feminism and doesn’t go away just because they (incorrectly) call themselves a “humanist” instead.
They also take everything personally.  They will go on at great length about how making generalizations about men is terrible for feminism and you are hurting the cause!  Because they aren’t like that, don’t you know?  Extra irony points if they interrupted a woman in order to say that.  They probably have many stories about Their Own Experiences with feminism, and are happy to share them, at great length, no matter what the conversation was about before they joined.  Whereas people in phase 1 will be offended that a conversations isn’t about them, people in phase 2 have found the solution: they just make it about them!  They may have heard the words “lived experience”, and assumed that meant it is super-important for everyone to listen to them talk about themselves.  They probably have a list of the ways they are oppressed and are super-excited to play Oppression Olympics (pearl-clutching women live in phase 2); they just know that their issue will win!
Since phase 2 is frequently triggered by people at phase 1 getting frustrated by trying to call people out and failing, it is all about giving up on changing sexist behavior.  Instead of calling out people who behave badly in public spaces, they are all about trying to find grand schemes to solve all sexism everywhere or focusing on improving the feminist community.  Woe betide anyone who meets a phase 2 who has learned about intersectionality; they still don’t understand context, or that not every conversation will be about their issue, and they will welcome the chance to play Oppression Olympics.  They hate exclusive spaces, probably because they are the reason exclusive spaces need to exist.  Instead of derailing with “what about people like me?” they instead derail with tone arguments or attempts to explain what feminists are doing wrong or procedural concerns, debates over the proper terminology, etc.  They love calling out feminists in an attempt to make feminism a safe space for people still in phase 1, and pointing out that not all feminists agree, as though that justifies their inaction and continued participation in an oppressive system.  They may call out men, but usually done by explaining their grand, arching plan to eliminate sexism (bonus points for wanting to eliminate sexism so it’ll be okay to hit on women in public places again without fear of getting chewed out by a feminist.)
In phase 2 they may talk about how theoretical men behave badly, perhaps even “men” as a general construct, but the only reason it is a problem is because they are treating women that way still.  Don’t worry, they won’t say “men”, though, even if they mean men, because that would be sexist and we have to be better than them if we are to call ourselves feminists.  It is definitely not about how totally unacceptable it is to purposefully alienate yourself from half the human species just so you can justify controlling them in order to ensure paternity.  Oh, whoops, got ahead of myself there *cough*.  Anyway, it is still about the objects of oppression as objects, just now sometimes it is about how they could be better objects so that oppression would stop.
3. Oh, shit, they mean me
For the first time, feminism becomes about the behavior of specific people acting in sexist ways instead of about .  It is really hard to get here, and really easy to regress once you do, because we have such a visceral response to the word “oppression” and it requires a pretty healthy sense of self to be able to accept this flaw in yourself.    It is also only possible to address sexist behavior if you get to phase 3, because otherwise eventually someone will acting in sexist ways you also act and you’ll defensively defend them, since otherwise you’d have to admit and internalize that sometimes you act in sexist ways, and then you’d be in phase 3.
I promise you, you are sexist.  If your first, defensive, response is to regress to phase 2 and say, “but if everyone is sexist than no one is!”, know that you are wrong.  We live in a sexist society and that doesn’t absolve you of responsibility for your sexism, it doubles it.  Not only are you responsible for deconstructing and addressing sexist dynamics you observe, you responsible for addressing and deconstructing your own fears, anxieties and assumptions that lead you to act in sexist ways.
Actually, you are additionally responsible for listening when someone tells you you are being sexist and figuring out how to not do that, which leads us to the journey of phase 3.  In order to listen to people saying you are doing sexist things, you have to come up with a personal narrative of sexism, such that you can evaluate whether or not you should internalize their critique.  This often comes about for the first time so you can explain why pointing out sexism isn’t sexist, and at least you will be able to refute libertarians and objectivists (we’ll talk in a moment about why you probably won’t, though).  Phase 3 is all about introspection, self-analysis, taking responsibility for your own education and understanding, possibly for the first time, where the gaps in your knowledge are.  People in phase 3 are sometimes humble to a fault, as they attempt to handle guilt, shame, disgust and despair all at once and far too often on their own.  People often begin unraveling the ways oppression has affected them here, but they’ve realized why talking about that constantly would contribute to negative dynamics, they know now that Oppression Olympics is a derailing technique and so instead they tend to keep their insights to themselves.  This means that phase 3 is the least represented in feminist discussions and there aren’t a ton of books or groups for “oh shit, I’m sexist”.  Instead they read lots of other writings, some of which probably target generalized hatred at people like them.  Often it is justifiable, and it may make them feel better to have someone be angry at them for things they do that really should provoke anger but no one ever told them off for because of their privilege.
If calling out of other people happens at all in this phase, it is usually of a strictly dry, factual description of observed dynamics.  Like, “did you notice you interrupted her just then?” and is frequently followed up by an apologetic debasement like, “I only notice because I do that sometimes too, and it’s something I’m working on, so if you notice me doing it feel free to point it out….” At other times, people become intimidated by possibly white knighting, because now they are examining their own behavior, so they stop saying anything at all (see the beginning for why this is bad).  By making it about themselves, they avoid a lot of the really vicious backlash fighting sexism can produce; it is much safer to only concern yourself with your behavior, because it is something you can (and should) control.  Occasionally the “humble to a fault” becomes “desperate plea for validation” as people’s sense of self can’t handle the “I do bad things, but I’m still a worthwhile person” dynamic.  In the best case scenario they get some reassurance, along with a good solid “why”, internalize it and so are learning the coping skills necessary to do further self-analysis.
It is possible to get stuck here, so wrapped up in the enormity of the problem that helplessness and futility set in.  Especially if they do try to speak up; saying feminist things causes backlashes, and whereas someone in phase 2 probably loves the sense of noble purpose being trolled gives them, someone in phase 3 just feels like crap.  It means they failed to communicate and someone is out there who believes those things, which is pretty depressing.  Besides which, because they stopped talking to people (realizing that, often, they had been doing so in ironically-oppressive ways that weren’t based on empathy at all), they are less likely to get feedback, support or knowledge of the history of feminist self-analysis of which they have become a part.  They might look back on how hard it was for them to get this far, or how miserable they now feel, and wonder how anyone ever makes that journey, or why they would.  They may well wish they’d taken the Blue Pill.
What people in phase 3 don’t realize is that they are laying the groundwork for something better.  By first addressing their own behavior, in the future they will be able to approach people acting sexist and people experiencing sexism from a place of empathy, not sympathy or false equivalence.  By being quietly depressed while they self-educate they learn how to listen and how to stay quiet while people discuss their lived experience.  The breadth of reading and need to justify practical choices to themselves becomes the basis of a cohesive narrative of gendered relations.  They may start understanding that intersectionality isn’t just about “what about people who are X?” but also the ways in which the reason people who experience X are further oppressed is because of gender-reinforced dynamics (as well as Y, Z and Q dynamics).  They may discover that their concept of gender is incomplete without a definition of “man” and “woman”, which leads into trans* oppression and cis* privilege.  Now they are able to read and absorb thinkers who they don’t agree with (since trans* oppression and cis* privilege are full of writers who contradict one another, this is key), so they can start to grasp the complex interplays of race, class, ability, size and more with the definition of gender and the enforcement thereof.
Perhaps most importantly, by learning that sometimes it is about them, people in phase 3 stop reacting defensively to everything everyone says.  Ironically, by learning to accept that sometimes it is personal, they stop taking everything personally.  In order to get through phase 3, they have to learn coping skills, some way to accept responsibility without being overwhelmed by guilt (and so making it all about them again), to accept feedback without feeling attacked, to accept the actual attacks that will be thrown at them by other people who aren’t over their defensive reactions and know that they can handle it.  They become willing to put themselves out there in order to break down these dynamics, even though they aren’t perfect, even though they know they will still make mistakes, even though they know that doing so is going to be hard.
4. Integration
Phase 4 is all about the “why”.
Having made it through phase 3, it becomes an iterative process.  Often sparked by, “huh, that makes me feel defensive”, or “huh, that makes me feel uncomfortable”, or “huh, that thing over there matches this pattern I’ve read about/observed/be told about”, people in phase 4 examine not only their own behavior, but also other people’s.  They examine their own fears, anxieties and frustrations, which offers the possibility of a more authentic, fulfilling life.  They experiment with intervention strategies, and start observing other people critically, not longer from the phase 2 “what should they be doing different?” but now “what should I be doing differently?”  They probably start posting meta-commentary, like this, discussing their own experiences and the common threads they’ve observed with other people’s experiences.
Finally, it isn’t about the cookies; if they wanted people to like them, they wouldn’t be doing the day-to-day work this style of activism requires.  They probably still feel guilty for getting any cookies at all, since they are still doing all the self-work from phase 3 and now they understand how cookie delivery reinforces sexist dynamics.  They may be told how reasonable they are, and thanked for explaining things without being angry or attacking, at which point they will tell the people in phase 1, again, that discounting people for whom these issues are personal is a form of privilege and oppression and they should Not Do That.
For the first time, calling people out is about those other people’s behavior.  Speaking out isn’t about the people it is targeted at (though motivation through empathy can still be present), but instead the way these people are protecting their egos, indulging their anxieties and making themselves feel important by treating other people like crap.  It has nothing to do with any specific woman, or the group of women, and everything to do with the patriarchy.  Some people are allowed to behave badly as long as they only behave that way to certain people, and all the more subtle ways both men and women reproduce sexist dynamics.  People in phase 4 will still be told they are White Knights, including by women, but they have a mental model of the patriarchy against which to check that allegation.  When they find that they have been roused to action by a protective instinct, they are more likely to examine other situations where they probably should have spoken up and didn’t, rather than decide never to speak up.  They also figure out how to use the minimum amount of energy while still being effective; it is amazing the difference “wow, that was rude” or “how about not using misogynistic insults?” can make.  It still takes work to come up with strategies to address these problems that don’t play into sexist dynamics, but suddenly feminism doesn’t have to be about Women, and in a good way not a phase 2 My Experience Is Key way.
There is work to do here that is totally not women’s responsibility, but that needs to be done, analyzing the “why” of sexism and how to teach young boys and old men both a better sense of self that doesn’t rely on destructive, defensive misogyny.  This work can be done without ignoring women, and it must be done without ignoring women in order to remain non-sexist, but it should also be done without imposing on women or expecting them to show the way.  Be wary of exclusive spaces, since men and women are taught not to listen to women and it is easy to end up with a space that does nothing to include women’s perspectives.  The best model I have seen involved a woman who was willing to sit quietly and listen until a question came up, at which point all the men stopped talking and listened to her.  There are also some (not all, some) gender-variant people who have unique insight into both sides of the question.  I highly recommend reading writings by butch lesbians, for example, for examples of alternative masculinity, or finding a group of Radical Fairies to listen to.
It is easy to burn out in phase 4, especially if you get really into it.  Feminists don’t all agree, and they don’t all behave in respectful ways to each other, much less other people.  Some people do hate people like you, and the only thing you can do about it is respect their wishes and stay away.  Paying attention to the horrors of the world can be devastating, and so it is important to notice the triumphs too.  Lara Logan got raped, and it caused a huge number of people to respond by wanting to ban women from reporting from dangerous areas, but do you know her life was ultimately saved by a group of Egyptian women?  The threw themselves on top of her, taking the hits intended for her and ultimately drove off the mob. It is also possible to get lost in theory, in relativism, in everything except the reality of people’s experiences.  Each dynamic we understand has a real effect on real people’s lives, and we must always remember to listen to as many voices as possible and incorporate the perspective we glean from them into the larger picture.
But if you get here, you will get to watch the world change.  In the past ten years the world has changed, and I am sure that in the next ten it will as well.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t have to go forward.  There are powerful forces arrayed to support the patriarchy, and becoming more powerful all the time as wealth concentrates and the working class needs to be appeased as capitalism fails them.  It may not seem important, but each small step you take here, each act of sexism you learn to recognize, even just living your own authentic life without taking your anxieties out on the people around you, is a revolutionary act.  It is part of how we can go forward.  It is part of what we must, absolutely, do in order to finally free ourselves of the oppressive, alienating society brought about by men’s fear of being cuckolded.
And that is how to address sexism without being a chauvinist. I am sure people are pissed off that there’s an ordering, because it implies that some approaches are better than others, but you know what? I think there is a hierarchy, and I do think that people who react defensively to things that aren’t targeted at them are less feminist that people who are willing to evaluate their own behavior on a regular basis. It is not that those people don’t matter, it is that 90% of my writings will never reach them and someone with far more patience than me will have to sit them down and explain why their enthusiasm for anti-sexist work is actually sexist. However, the good news is that it is pretty hard to be a White Knight, because White Knights care about what people think, and people don’t react well to being called out so it’s not normally worth it for them to keep doing it for long. Actually calling out problematic behavior is all about addressing sexism itself, by acknowledging and actively respecting the humanity of everyone involved, by constantly reevaluating your own behavior, and not accepting everything everyone says but rather holding a mental model that is open to being tested against what you observe and changing when it is found to clash with reality.  Is it easy?  No.  But I think it’s easier than telling entitled, privileged men they need to change their behavior.  And you should know that it is worth it, even if you never get a cookie.

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Athiests Make The Best Theists

In Uncategorized on February 16, 2011 by knightofsummer Tagged: , ,

I don’t find faith and atheism at nearly the odds people seem to hold them at. In fact, I think atheists can provide the strongest defense of faith in the face of logical or reason-based challenges to the value of seeking meaning in an uncaring universe.

Humans are built with religion, through both nature and nurture. The placebo effect now appears to be a measurable value of ritual, for example. Religion emerged early in humanity’s development, it is demonstrably reflected in our physiology. It pervades our history, our culture, our society. Atheism is the approach that can declare the mutually contradictory Truths simultaneously true, for the value of truth that matters. Arguing about the existence of God is, for me, like arguing about the existence of Race. The “truth” is totally irrelevant in the face of what humanity has imbued into these concepts.

At that point it is possible for the discussion to move beyond truth/non-truth and onto pragmatic questions about the relative answers proposed to “Why?” My goal would be to find those “becauses” that lead to healthy, vibrant, fulfilling, connected societies full of creativity, innovation and priorities all members of the society support.

I believe religion is of central importance in my life, and that God exists in all the ways that matter. However, if a religion says anything about the measurable world, eventually it will be disproven through the process of science. I don’t want my answer to “Why?” to be reliant on a fragile misunderstanding of reality, and I think as understanding becomes easier to obtain, more widely distributed, the religions that do rely on “proof” of any kind will find themselves marginalized. Those religions that rely on humans, today, that offer better lives than people lived without them, those are the religions that will continue to answer that question of “Why?” At least some of humanity is programmed to need a better answer than “just because”, and some of humanity is willing to accept that there is no answer.

Life emerged, because if it didn’t we wouldn’t notice the lack of it. We aren’t lucky to live in a universe with rules and coincidences conductive to life; we live in this universe because it has rules and coincidences conductive to life. Causation is inverted, and if we, as humans, are capable of accepting that emergence is amazing, is beautiful, is sufficient, is the product of all the decisions made by the organisms that emerged and all the physical processes of the world, that free will has a greater effect than religion allows and is less important than it maintains, that death is inevitable and when it happens we simply cease to be, we will be able to leave religion behind. However, by then perhaps we will better understand religion itself, and we will no longer need to in order to avoid the power structures, oppression, excuses for violence and moral hypocrisy it currently embodies.

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Why I’m still waiting for video games that only star a woman

In Uncategorized on January 28, 2011 by knightofsummer Tagged: , ,

Rght now there are usually two modes for games that encourage the player to identify as the character: “be a specific man” or “be a customized character, who can be a man or a woman” (clearly exceptions exist, in some genres more than others.) While I enjoy customizable characters, I want there to be a third option of “be a specific woman”, as that option is missing right now (along with options for any purposefully un-gendered, multi-gendered or variably-gendered characters. Gender is interesting! And multi-faceted! And not actually a binary switch! But, anyway…)

I empathize with the desire for “girly” games. I experienced a rush of excitement, physical joy, when I saw the new design for Laura Croft. I may be terribly disappointed, of course, but right now she looks like she might be a specific, emblematic character who’s new design I find appealing, I am excited to get to *be* her, and play out whatever story they will tell. The white, straight, cis guys I know who have always been well-represented in games didn’t get that rush when they saw her; for them, nothing is missing. They didn’t seem to have any particular reaction at all to the new character design, even the two who had played earlier versions of Tomb Raider.

When I was little I accepted pink games, games with ponies, games about clothes and makeup not because I cared about any of that, but because it was the closest thing I found to games about *me*. They were’t about me at all; they were about stereotypes other people assumed about me, but that still made me less invisible. I was looking for role models, I wanted to play games about what I might become when I grew up, about what femininity even meant. If the only answers available were in pink packages and starred Barbie, well, that was where I was going to look.

When they say “those games won’t make enough money” they really are saying, “women aren’t worth writing about.” And that simply, absolutely, sucks. Games are “fantasy fulfillment”, and so when they refuse to create games about women they are saying that nobody would ever want to be a woman. I don’t know about other little girls, but I heard that message loud and clear.

While Bioware has taken a more inclusive approach, it is not the only possible approach. Bioware, instead of just telling men’s stories tell the stories of a human, who is either male or female. They offer options, but the player is never required to identify with a female avatar. It is kind of a cop out, though one that is greatly appreciated given the alternative. However, I believe it does limit the stories you can tell.
In Bioware games the only time gender can be important is in small, isolated areas where it doesn’t drastically change the game. From what I’ve seen, this is when sex comes up or occasional extra conversation options that are added for women (because most of the time, male is still default.) Gender can never be a central and integral part of the story or they’d be creating two separate games, and it can only vary as much as these little extra hooks allow. At the same time, some of the constraints of real world gender are still there: on sexuality, on gender expression, on which bathroom you can go into without getting yelled at. Most social sexism is ignored when it comes to your character (the “we don’t respect women, but Shepard, you’re a hero!” effect) and there is a whole bevel of human life that gets smoothed away so that your gender is irrelevant to the story. Luckily, not every story is about gender and not every social role is gendered, and so Bioware has many interesting stories it can tell.

However, I believe there are other stories that call for specific protagonists, and I don’t automatically condemn games that tell the story of some man. BioShock was a game that was more meaningful because Jack was male. A story based on Joan of Arc would make no sense with a configurable gender; a man wouldn’t be tested for virginity or burned at the stake for wearing men’s clothing. He would not be the only person of his gender in the room at his trial. There are stories in which gender isn’t just important, but central.
I don’t want games with male protagonists to go away or stop being made, but I have no fear that that is going to be the result of pushing for games that tell women’s stories to be made as well. Arkham Asylum will still be there even if Promethea becomes a game. I love the specific games games I play now, I just wish they didn’t all tell the story of a similar white, straight, cis man. Eventually it stops being specific, and goes back to being a generic stand-in for the audience, with default, unexamined, unimportant gender.

In those cases, where gender isn’t important to the story, the Bioware approach works fine. Other games where gender never comes up and the player character is primarily an avatar, such as Assassin’s Creed, would benefit from it and I would like to see it become the default, from which there should be a reason to deviate. But that approach will never produce the rush of gratitude that a game with a single, specific female protagonist does. A game that’s not just a “girly” game but rather a game about a specific woman who was once a girl makes me feel… seen. I can play a version of *my* life! It would be even more amazing if these protagonists varied in other ways as well, reflected the heterogeneous spectrum of human experience, but to open up that possibility I think we have to start with convincing people that that even if they can’t imagine anyone paying for the privilege of being a woman, some of us think it is worth it.

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